SANFORD, Fla. – Two things stand within reach for Orlando City when they take on Atlanta United on Tuesday in the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup (7:30 pm ET | ESPN+): Advancing to the final of the tournament and beating the Five Stripes, both for the first time in club history.
For Chris Mueller, the thought of that is tantalizing, but to do it against a surging ATLUTD side adds a zing to the occasion.
“It just brings out a little bit of extra flair,” Mueller said before Monday’s training session. “A little bit more vibe, a little bit more of a bite to the game and I think going up against Atlanta in such a big game like this, it’s going to be a special night.”
It will be the first time both Orlando and Atlanta compete in the semifinals of the Open Cup, and Lions boss James O’Connor is fully aware of what’s at stake when both sides meet at Exploria Stadium for the first time since their May 12 match that saw the reigning MLS Cup champions clinch a 1-0 victory at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
But O’Connor isn’t focused too much on the hype of Tuesday’s game, calling his players to be self-disciplined and to continue carrying out the process if they want to be achieve the goal of reaching the Open Cup final against the winner of the other semifinal between Minnesota United and the Portland Timbers, which takes place on Wednesday.
“The biggest thing is we want to stay process-oriented,” said O’Connor. “The danger is because we’re looking forward to the game is the emotional aspect that will be involved in a game like this is that people get caught up in the emotion.
“The players have been very strategic in trying to follow a process,” added O’Connor. “I think we’ve done a great job through training in doing that and I think tomorrow we need to make sure we follow a process and don’t get caught up in ‘it’s Atlanta.’ I think from our standpoint, it’s just making sure that guys are dialed-in in what we need to do in-game and that we carry out what believe will bring success in the game.”
Mueller, who has a goal in three appearances in this year’s Open Cup, is on the same page as O’Connor when it comes to hyping the game.
“It’s obviously a huge game,” said Mueller. “We’re ready, we’re excited. We’re aware of the hype that’s coming in around it. We want to win the game as much as anybody else, so we’re focused. We had a good week of training, good result on the weekend and we’re looking forward to tomorrow night.”
The Lions, however, haven’t been able to defeat the Five Stripes in seven attempts, so Tuesday’s match has an added level of importance, according to Mueller.
“It’s a cup game, so whoever it’s against isn’t really important,” he said. “It would be a good game no matter who we played. The fact that it is Atlanta, we’re excited because it’s a rivalry game. We know that the two fan bases aren’t the biggest fans of each other … it’s going to be exciting.”
O’Connor said he expects a big crowd on Tuesday, but is primarily focused on his side putting on a complete performance.
“We’ve all been involved in very big games where there’s a lot at stake,” said O’Connor. “Whether it’s promotion or cup final, I think the biggest thing again is the emotional aspect. It’s managing the emotional side of things.
“The atmosphere will be electric tomorrow night, so for our players it’s just understanding the atmosphere, there’s a lot at stake but what we need to focus on? We need to focus on performance, we need to focus on the process that will allow us to have a good performance.”