A rivalry renewed
With goal of picking up where 2020 left off, Orlando City to begin vs. familiar foe
“We haven’t modified our goals ... It’s normal that we may have fear to fail and be short on the objectives that you plan at the beginning but you won’t hear from me any objective but win.”
— Oscar Pareja, Orlando City coach
Orlando City returns to Exploria Stadium on Saturday against Atlanta United with two goals in mind: reigniting the success of 2020 and continuing a streak of victories over one of its longest rivals.
The home opener — which kicks off at 3 p.m. ET with a live broadcast on Univision and TUDN — will set the stage for the season in front of a sold-out 50% capacity crowd at Exploria Stadium.
After a strong first season under Oscar Pareja was cut short in the conference semifinal match, the Lions hope to waste no time picking up where they left off with the MLS Cup in their sights.
“We haven’t modified our goals,” Pareja said. “It was a surprise for many — thinking that we can fight for trophies and fight for first places. But our approach hasn’t changed. I think it’s the commitment and the responsi
bility that every coach has to have with his players and the club that we represent. It’s normal that we may have fear to fail and be short on the objectives that you plan at the beginning but you won’t hear from me any objective but win.”
For Atlanta, Saturday’s match will be highlighted by the return of star Josef Martínez.
Martínez has been a thorn in the Lions’ side since Atlanta United’s first season.
The striker has scored seven goals against Orlando City, the highest tally he’s netted against any MLS opponent. He’s known for openly teasing Orlando fans online, calling them his “kids” in an interview last year.
Although Orlando City finished 2020 with two wins and two draws against Atlanta, the Lions have yet to beat Martínez. The striker suffered an ACL tear in the opening match of the season, spending the rest of the Five Stripes’ dismal 6-13-4 season in recovery.
The former league MVP will play his first MLS match since that injury Saturday at Exploria Stadium. But Lions players say they aren’t paying too much attention to the star’s return.
“None of us are really thinking too much about Josef coming back,” winger Chris Mueller said. “We’re trying to just focus on our game and play Atlanta at home and beat them for all the other reasons that go into this rivalry. Every opening game, no matter who it’s against, we’re going to go in to win it.”
Although Saturday marks the season opener for both teams, Atlanta already competed earlier this week, taking a 1-0 victory over Liga Deportiva Alajuelense to secure a spot in the Concacaf Champions League quarterfinals.
Pareja said the match offered the Lions an important opportunity to scout the Five Stripes.
Meanwhile, the Lions are preparing to be short several of their star players. Starting centerback Robin Jansson and defensive midfielder Uri Rosell are also listed as questionable for the match with lower body injuries while defender João Moutinho is continuing to recover from hip surgery.
The team will particularly miss the presence of designated player Mauricio Pereyra as he serves his two-game red-card suspension from the 2020 playoffs. The midfielder is the spark of the Lions’ offense, a creative playmaker who doesn’t have a like-for-like replacement.
Although his absence will be critical, Pareja noted the Lions used the entire preseason to plan for Pereyra’s suspension, using the opportunity to prepare the team’s depth for future situations.
“It’s not easy to lose any player, especially in the first game of the season,” Pareja said. “We prepared the team without him and that gives us some possibilities that may adjust the team to the same model we had, and also some variations we tried during the offseason . ... Just having some variation in the model, that will make us better for sure.”
The final week of preseason was highlighted by a sense of excitement throughout the Lions’ roster. The team spent one of their final training sessions playing team-bonding games like human tic-tac-toe and tug of war. Captain Nani said the team feels enthused to move from friendly preseason scrimmages to the competitive pace of real matches.
For the Lions, this eagerness is only bolstered by the promise of the largest crowd they’ve played in front of since the onset of the pandemic after over 12,000 fans bought tickets for Saturday’s reduced-capacity match.
“It’s special to play in our stadium,” Nani said. “It’s going to be more special this season because we had a difficult year last season. We want to get back to normal, to see our fans . ... At this point, we just want to start the real competition.”