SANFORD, Fla. – James O’Connor didn’t have to look at Atlanta United’s unusual start to the season to describe what his Orlando City side will be going up against on Sunday (2:30 pm ET | FOX, MLS LIVE on DAZN in Canada).
For the Lions’ coach, it’s quite clear that they’re facing the 2018 MLS Cup champions with the opportunity to beat them – both at Mercedes Benz Stadium and for the very first time.
“Obviously going into the home of the champions in front of 60, 70,000 people, so it’s going to be a massive game,” O’Connor told reporters before Wednesday’s training. “These are the types of games our players should want to play in.”
“So I think for us again, it’s about being pretty strategic,” O’Connor continued. “Where are they strong? Where are the movements that they try to make? Have a good understanding [and] make sure the players understand all of that and hopefully go and give a good account of ourselves and have a strong performance in Atlanta.”
The Five Stripes, under first-year head coach Frank de Boer, started the season with one win in their first four league games, but have seemingly turned the corner with two consecutive wins. They face Toronto FC on Wednesday night (TSN 4/5 in Canada, MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US).
Meanwhile, Orlando have an 0-4-2 record against Atlanta since they joined MLS in 2017.
Veteran goalkeeper Brian Rowe, who’s no stranger to MLS rivalries since his LA Galaxy days (San Jose Earthquakes) and more recently while playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps (Cascadia), expects a hostile environment.
But going from an intimate, soccer-specific stadium in Orlando to a multi-use venue in Atlanta might be a non-factor, Rowe said.
“I think you get to a certain amount of fans, certain amount of noise, it just almost becomes white noise on the outside,” said Rowe. “I’ve had the opportunity at the Rose Bowl, couple of times, playing in front of 90,000 people and at a certain point you’re focused on the game and it’s just outside noise.”
For the Lions, Sunday’s encounter starts a three-game week, which includes a cross-country fixture at the Seattle Sounders next Wednesday. Then comes a home match against an ailing FC Cincinnati expansion team.
For O’Connor, that presents the need to properly manage players’ workloads and putting a strong squad on the field.
“We need to be very intentional of about sort of understanding the games and the travel,” said O’Connor. “Because it’s not just the games. We’re going to fly to the other side of the country midweek and then fly back. … You need to have a plan, so again for us, it’s being very intentional about certain players who’ll play minutes.”