If it’s Friday, it must be Orlando.
For the second time in less than three weeks — and third in less than a month for a select few of its players — Atlanta United will play at Orlando in Exploria Stadium.
A few of the Five Stripes were part of the MLS All-Star team that lost to Atletico Madrid in Florida in late July. Six days later, the Five Stripes knocked the Lions out of semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup to stretch their unbeaten streak against its southern neighbors to eight games.
In addition to trying to beat its “rival” for the first time, Orlando is competing to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. It is in eighth place in the East with 34 points. It is tied with Montreal on points, but the Impact have the final playoff spot because they have more wins, which is the first tiebreaker. Three points Friday would elevate Orlando into sixth, only two points behind fourth-place D.C. United.
Atlanta United has won seven of its past eight and is trying to hold onto first in the East. It has the same number of points (45) as Philadelphia but is in first because of the first tiebreaker. Trailing is NYCFC, which has 44 points and a game in hand.
“I think, at this point, there’s a certain comedy element to it,” Atlanta United goalkeeper Brad Guzan said. “Being down for the All-Star game, going down there for the Open Cup. We know the track record and from the outside, what the press makes of the rivalry, if you will. Us as players approach it in a way where we knew it’s going to be a tough game.
“But they are fighting for their lives and trying to pick up points. We are currently in a good spot, but as we all know, when things are going well and playing well, it’s very easy for things to change.”
As has been the case most of the season, Atlanta United also has the challenge of another important game coming next: the U.S. Open Cup championship game against Minnesota at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Manager Frank de Boer said he will field a strong lineup Friday because three days rest should be enough to field another strong lineup against the Loons.
That lineup for Orlando could include Josef Martinez, who was injured and didn’t play in the Cup semifinal win. He has scored in 11 consecutive league games, which is an MLS record, and trails LAFC’s Carlos Vela by five in the race to defend his Golden Boot.
Atlanta United also should have defensive midfielder Eric Remedi, who missed the most recent game at Portland because of an injury, and possibly fullback George Bello, striker Brandon Vazquez and midfielder Kevin Kratz, who have been out most of the season with various injuries.
To improve their probability of winning, Ezequiel Barco said Atlanta United must finish its chances better than it did against Portland. Barco and Pity Martinez wasted several quality chances.
“I think we are creating a lot of chances,” he said. “We’ve been playing out of the back very well, being able to find guys in the midfield. Players like Josef, Pity and myself, we know we can do damage. The thing we have to improve is to be a little bit sharper with our finishing. That’s what we are working on.”
Orlando has been saying the same thing most of the season. Its defense is one of the better in the Eastern Conference, with 35 goals allowed, but its offense has been poor, with 35 goals scored. Dom Dwyer’s point-blank miss early in the Open Cup semifinal is an example of his poor form in front of goal since he was traded from Sporting KC to Orlando two years ago. He has scored only five goals this season.
“Really motivated to play there because it’s a rivalry game for us,” Barco said. “We are going to go down there and try to get a result because all of these points are important as we try to stay on top of the table.”