Atlanta United is one win away from playing for the U.S. Open Cup title.
That the one win could come at Orlando, where Atlanta United has never lost and its players are always booed vociferously and passionately, even in All-Star games, seems to make Tuesday’s semifinal game that much more exciting.
“When you go home, you always get a reception like that,” Atlanta United striker Josef Martinez said. “That’s why they love me so much.”
Atlanta United has had two memorable moments in Orlando.
The first was Hector Villalba’s strike in 2017 that resulted in a, 1-0, win in the teams’ first-ever meeting and it later winning goal of the year in MLS.
The second was Martinez breaking the MLS single-season scoring record when he netted his 28th goal last season.
Should Atlanta United defeat Orlando City, it will host the U.S. Open Cup final at Mercedes-Benz Stadium giving it an obvious advantage over either Minnesota or Portland, which are matched up in the other semifinal.
But there is more.
Justin Meram played for Orlando for part of last season. He was traded back to Columbus after what seemed like a miserable experience for both player and team. He was traded to Atlanta United this season, where he has thrived. When asked if he would celebrate should he score against his former on Tuesday, he broke from soccer protocol and said there was a “million percent” chance he would.
When his comment was posted on social media on Friday, some Orlando City supporters went apoplectic, which seems like their reaction to most things.
Meram took the high road Saturday.
“You’re one game from hosting a final and two games from winning a cup,” he said. “It’s a rivalry, semifinal, there’s going to be a lot on the line.”
Atlanta United needs to show that it can win on the road, where it is just 3-8-0 this season and losers of six consecutive. Orlando is 5-6-1 at home.
“We have to understand; this is a standard,” Atlanta United manager Frank de Boer said after Saturday’s 3-0 win against the L.A. Galaxy. “If you want to keep this up, it costs a lot of energy, mentally, so on Tuesday we have to do the same. If we don’t do it or if somebody is not doing his role, then we can be punished. We have to try to look for other things. If we keep the concentration again and the identity, I think it’s difficult to beat us.”
Orlando has its own motivations.
Atlanta United won the MLS Cup in its second season and is tied for first in the East this season. Orlando has yet to ever make the playoffs and is on the wrong side of the red line this season.
Winning Tuesday would put the Lions closer to a trophy than they have ever been.
Both teams will play on the same number of days of rest after both posted wins on Saturday. Orlando defeated Dallas, 2-0, in Florida.
Atlanta United’s performance should give it confidence, not that it’s needed.
“The Cup is one thing and the regular season is another,” Martinez said. “Obviously, when you play a semifinal one has to play with a knife between your teeth. Now we’ll go home and enjoy tonight’s win and tomorrow we’ll think about Orlando, which is the important thing.”
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