The Heineken Rivalry Week matchup caps a three-game home stretch for the Five Stripes that started with a 3-0 loss against Austin FC and now can end on a high note against an Orlando side fighting for a top-four place in the Eastern Conference standings.
The through line between those highs and lows? Head coach Gonzalo Pineda laid it out.
“I think the message is very clear,” Pineda said before Week 21. “We know how we can get results, and I think the team just needs to continue with that. That type of mentality has to stick with the team for the rest of the season. Regardless of how good of football we play, or how good of results we get, we have to fight and compete the same way we did.”
That mindset adjustment might sound simple, but it made all the difference amid an injury-plagued year that reached a boiling point after the ATX match – most evident in star striker Josef Martinez’s get-it-all-off-your-chest postgame media interview.
But with a brace from Ronaldo Cisneros against RSL and some bend-don’t-break defense, Atlanta found a way to get three points and stay within a fighter’s punch of the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs line.
“I think Austin was a little bit of a wake-up call and going into Wednesday's performance it was a group effort,” midfielder Amar Sejdic said. “Football is a game of 11 guys on the field. So everybody needs to work together, everybody needs to trust each other that you're going to be helped out in situations if you do make a mistake or if they make a mistake, you covered them.
“I think Wednesday was a great example of that, and it was a great result and a great effort a great fight and we got to keep it up into Sunday.”
This Southeastern rivalry has historically titled Atlanta’s way, as the 2018 MLS Cup champions have a 7W-3L-5D advantage over Orlando in league play. That was buoyed by near-dominance through 2019, only for Atlanta to win just one of seven encounters from 2020-21.
To wade back in the other direction, midfielder Marcelino Moreno succinctly summed up what is required.
“We're in a difficult situation and I think we needed a little bit more from each guy,” said Moreno.
Past their season’s halfway point, Atlanta know a moment of truth awaits Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Now it’s about building consistency and executing.
“I think it's not just because of the opponent, but the moment we are in this season, we know every point matters,” Pineda said. “And when you are facing a rival like Orlando, you need to have an extra boost, you need to have a little bit of extra fire inside you like this is important for us and this is important for the fans.
“We cannot let the opponent enjoy being in our field. So I will make sure I will pass that message to the players and they understand that this game is very important for the fans and for us.”