SANFORD, Fla. – Meeting for the second time this month, the stakes are different for Orlando City heading into Friday’s Heineken Rivalry Week match against Atlanta United at Exploria Stadium (8 pm ET | ESPN in US; TVAS, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada).
A place in the U.S. Open Cup final determined their last meeting, and the Five Stripes secured that feat. This time, however, Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs implications are on the line for the Lions in a must-win game to avoid slipping away from the postseason race, as they sit just below the playoff line in the Eastern Conference.
For Orlando forward Tesho Akindele, at this point of the season, it's clear the margin of error is small, but the fanbase will definitely be up for the occasion.
“I’m expecting a lot of energy,” Akindele told reporters before Tuesday’s training session. “[On Monday] I had an appearance and every single fan was like ‘We’re looking forward to Friday’ so I know the fans are going to be going crazy, and I think that gives us extra motivation. Atlanta will try to match that, so it should be a really high-paced game.”
But a lot has changed for the Lions recently in league play. James O’Connor’s side is currently riding a four-game unbeaten streak, keeping hopes of reaching the postseason alive.
For O’Connor, looking back at his team's last meeting with Atlanta, there isn’t a magical adjustment to make this time around. But not being able to finish their chances against the 2018 MLS Cup champions really hurt them last time.
O’Connor believes this time should be different.
“The biggest thing looking back at the game as well is the chances,” said O’Connor. “I think we had chances in that particular game that we needed to take… it’s the old cliché of goals change games, and I think the biggest thing for us is trying to get that first goal.
“When you look at the chances we had in the last particular game against Atlanta, we needed to do a better job of capitalizing on those chances.”
Akindele knows Orlando aren’t the only team vying for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. With five teams essentially playing for the last two spots in the postseason, Akindele said it’s exciting for both fans and players to see hope remain alive for many teams towards the latter part of the regular season.
“It’s exciting, that’s what the league wants,” Akindele said. “Kind of makes sure every game is competitive going to the end. It’s exciting for the league, the fans, for us as players, it’s exciting to be a part of that because we know we’re chasing history with the playoff spot for this club."