With Shield in sight, Atlanta United look forward to test from Orlando

Miguel Almiron, Amro Tarek battle for ball

MARIETTA, Ga. — Having taken control of its own fate in the race for the Supporters’ Shield following a 3-1 win over Columbus Crew SC Sunday, Atlanta United head to Orlando City Stadium this week for a Friday night matchup in what kicks off a pivotal moment of the season for the Five Stripes.

With only nine regular-season games remaining, Friday’s Heineken Rivalry Week match (8 pm ET | ESPN — Full TV & streaming info) is the first of four consecutive road games for Atlanta. How the team deals with this stretch could go a long way in deciding its place in the highly competitive Eastern Conference.

“We just have to be calm, stay patient and keep doing the things we've been doing,” midfielder Miguel Almiron told reporters through a translator after training Tuesday. “We have to keep our feet on the ground and take these games one at a time on the road.”

Fortunately for Atlanta, the Five Stripes seem to have found the key to road success this year. They are on a record pace, with seven wins in 11 road matches this year. Those seven wins match the regular-season high for any MLS club since 2014. That kind of success has given the team a mentality that it can win any time, anywhere.

“We go into every match looking to win. We want to win everything,” said veteran defender Chris McCann. “The team spirit is good and everyone's happy and great to be around. That's how it is when you're going for a cup, you want to come in every day and be with the boys and have that togetherness. You're looking forward to getting on the pitch and having the games coming thick and fast.”

While Orlando City SC's season hasn’t gone to script, highlighted by a midseason managerial change, Atlanta United are expecting Friday’s rivalry game to play out like this fixture always does—with an extra edge.

“The whole thing with Atlanta and Orlando, because they're the closest teams to one another, it's built into this big, huge rivalry,” McCann said. “I think both clubs and both sets of fans have added to it. I think it's great for the league to have that. The way the fans are into the game, it feels like a hot contest. It's a big billing and, as a player, you want to live up to that.”

Almiron wasn’t ready to tack the word “rivalry” onto the match like McCann, but the Paraguayan said he enjoys the encounters with Orlando because of the hostile environment created in both stadiums.

“It'll be a difficult game because we think Orlando is a good team,” said Almiron. “We've played them a bunch of times now, and we're just going to try to enjoy the game. I think the environment in Orlando is always good and I'm expecting a good game.”