One hundred and four days since Atlanta United kicked off the 2021 season on a sunny Saturday in April in Orlando, the Five Stripes are back where it all began. Not much has gone to plan since that 0-0 draw in Week 1. Gabriel Heinze’s run in charge of Atlanta has already come to a close and the Five Stripes are stuck in the lower depths of the Eastern Conference. There’s still time to turn the year around, however. The first two games of Rob Valentino’s tenure have already boasted major improvements in performance, though it hasn’t translated to results yet.
Atlanta’s attack showed more life against Cincinnati and Columbus than it did in almost the entirety of the Heinze era. While neither of those teams is anything near juggernauts in the final third, the Five Stripes still put in a pair of solid defensive showings even without George Bello and Miles Robinson. The eventual returns of those two coupled with a (hopefully) active summer transfer window would set Atlanta up nicely for an autumn run up the standings but for now, the focus is on keeping the climb into the playoffs manageable. Atlanta is eight points and three teams below the red line with nineteen games to go. Few teams in the Eastern Conference have inspired confidence on a consistent basis and catching up to the playoff pack is very feasible. But for that to happen, Atlanta has to brush the dust off its win column and snap out of what’s now a ten-game winless run sooner rather than later. A good team to do that against? Our very good friends from Orlando.
The Purple Lions won’t make it easy, however. Orlando finds itself holding onto the three seed in the East with 25 points from fifteen games, albeit only three clear of Montreal in 7th. Its’ points-per-game has fallen from 1.78 in Oscar Pareja’s debut season to 1.66 in the Colombian’s second year. Even so, the general mediocrity of the East means Orlando still can call itself one of the better teams. Orlando’s attack is its best attribute and its goalscoring tally of 23 is 4th-best in the East even without Daryl Dike and Alexandre Pato for almost the entirety of the season. Nani has been able to offset the loss of production with seven goals and four assists in twelve games, along with Benji Michel (3g, 2a) and soon-to-be departed Chris Mueller (2g, 4a). While the Lions’ attack is still performing at 2020 levels, the same can’t be said of the backline. Orlando has both the fifth-most expected (21.4xga) and actual goals (19) conceded. Its defensive worries came to a tipping point last weekend in a 5-0 mauling at the hands of NYCFC. That defeat pushed Orlando to just one win in its last five, though truth be told, that’s a record Atlanta would gladly stake a claim to.
Predicted Starting XIs
Prediction: Orlando City 2-2 Atlanta United
The Five Stripes won’t be able to stop its winless run but a point on the road to Orlando isn’t anything to be ashamed of. A pair of goals from Josef Martinez and Brooks Lennon will cancel out the Nani Show in a back-and-forth 2-2 draw.