Atlanta United, Orlando City to square off for first time

A budding rivalry created as much by both teams’ success this season as is their proximity to each other is at hand when Atlanta United and Orlando City SC square off on Friday for the first time as MLS opponents at Orlando City Stadium.

Atlanta United (9-7-3) sits just one point ahead of Orlando City (8-7-5) in the Eastern Conference standings.

In their inaugural season in the league, Atlanta United is making a statement and breaking the stereotypes of MLS expansion sides. Atlanta has won five straight home matches and its past three games overall, the most recent a 4-2 win over San Jose Earthquakes on July 4.

Josef Martinez leads Atlanta United with nine goals while Yamil Asad leads the team with nine assists. Miguel Almiron is second on the team with eight of each.

The Atlanta players, though still learning to work as a team, understand that it’s important to keep their focus and build on the momentum gained from the first half of the season.

“This match is a good opportunity to re-evaluate the things we’ve been working on in our home form lately,” Asad said. “We’ve been on a good streak at home, and we won our last road game, so this will give us a good chance to re-evaluate that.”

U.S. national team goalkeeper Brad Guzan has joined Atlanta from Aston Villa in England after signing with MLS on Jan. 26, 2016, and will start his first game on Friday.

Guzan has been working with Atlanta United and watching film, but finally was able to get on the field for tactical practice this week.

“The biggest challenge is just getting Brad used to how the team likes to play, and with the first team,” Atlanta coach Tata Martino said through a translator. “Now that he’s here, we’re just trying to get him up to speed as fast as possible for the second half of the season.”

Orlando City SC has come into its own in its third season in MLS but has been maddeningly inconsistent at times. The Lions started their campaign with five-straight wins at newly opened Orlando City Stadium, but come into Friday’s match on the heels of a 3-1 home loss to Toronto FC that left them winless in their last four matches on their home pitch.

An important piece of Orlando’s success this season has been the play of midfielder Carlos Rivas, who recorded five assists and four goals. The Lions will have to turn to Rivas and fellow midfielder Kaka (who was recently named to the MLS All-Star roster for the third year in a row) for an offensive lift on Friday as the team’s leading goal scorer Cyle Larin is away on duty for the Canadian national team in the Gold Cup.

“Atlanta is an extremely dangerous, dynamic, attacking team,” Orlando City SC coach Jason Kreis said. “They have some really, really good options. Their four players that play the highest up the field for them are very dangerous, very attack-oriented, very aggressive group.

“But they are not perfect. They have some problems of their own, which we will be looking to exploit.”

The two sides will clash twice more this season, the first of which is on July 29 in Atlanta.