The many meetings between Atlanta United and Orlando City in their five years of joint existence have painted a succinct picture of both club’s fortunes. The Five Stripes’ nine-game unbeaten run coincided with its MLS Cup and US Open Cup victories while its six-game winless streak came hand in hand with a fall to the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Orlando, which has won three of the last six clashes, is now a regular at the top of the East and all but certain to book its second straight postseason appearance. None of Atlanta’s last three managers (Stephen Glass, Gabriel Heinze, and Rob Valentino) managed to come out on top against the Purple Lions. The task of restoring Atlanta’s crown has now fallen to Gonzalo Pineda who comes face to face with Oscar Pareja’s side in only his second game in charge.
A good starting point for the Five Stripes would be to make sure Game Two of the Pineda era looks nothing like Game One. Atlanta has had two weeks to dwell on its deflating 2-0 defeat to Nashville SC thanks to a performance that looked a lot more fitting under Heinze than Valentino. Pineda’s job won’t get any easier this Friday with a slew of international absences causing him a selection headache. Miles Robinson, George Bello, Ronald Hernandez, and Josef Martinez are all unavailable to go with an already decimated midfield unit.
When we last met Orlando the Lions were coming off a 5-0 mauling at the hands of New York City FC and had only one win in its last five. In the six games since Orlando is undefeated and conceded a total of five goals. Its turnaround in form has it second in the East on 38 points (10W-8T-4L) and four points ahead of the mid-table pack. Oscar Pareja’s outfit is one of the more well-rounded teams in MLS, though it’s not outstanding at either end of the pitch. Orlando boasts both the fifth-best attack and defense in the East, making it particularly difficult to beat. Nani is once again the star of the show in Florida and leads Orlando in both goals (9) and assists (7). The supporting cast hasn’t been as effective this year but Benji Michel (4g, 3a), Daryl Dike (3g, 1a), and Silvester Van der Water (3g, 2a) aren’t anything to scoff at.
Predicted Starting XIs
Prediction: Atlanta United 1-1 Orlando City
Atlanta is going to need its attacking trio of Ezequiel Barco, Marcelino Moreno, and Luiz Araujo to step up with Josef out. Even without the Venezuelan, BAM has the quality to cause Orlando problems but there’s no telling whether anyone can find the end product. Two weeks of training under Pineda should lead to a more cohesive overall performance, though the absences of so many key players will make three points too much to ask for.