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Orlando City ready for ‘hostile’ environment when it faces rival Atlanta United

SANFORD, Fla. — Orlando City’s history with Atlanta United has been a rough one.

The Lions haven’t beaten their rivals in six tries, compiling an 0-4-2 (2 points) record against the 2017 MLS expansion side. It’s a rivalry that has seen fan suspensions, contentious Twitter interactions and droves of supporters at both sides’ respective venues, and it’s one Orlando City wants to get on the winning side of.

“They’re obviously our closest geographical MLS city, so it makes for a fun game,” said veteran midfielder Will Johnson. “Obviously, we haven’t had the success that we would like to have against them, so I think when we start pulling our weight, it’ll be much more intense of a rivalry.

“They came into the league and obviously got off to a great start in their club’s history. It’s kind of on us now to rise to that level and continue to try to battle and fight and grind in a way that gets us some results.”

The Lions (3-4-3, 12 points) face the Five Stripes (4-3-2, 14 points) on Sunday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. The match will be nationally broadcast on Fox.

The last time the two teams met in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the announced crowd was 71,932, which, at the time, made it the second-most-attended match in MLS history. Atlanta United won that match 4-0.

Second-year winger Chris Mueller said there’s “some tension” between the two sides.

“Obviously, it means a lot to the fans,” he said. “The fans from both sides are probably two of the best in MLS. I think that from that standpoint and the followings that kind of come together in this sort of game, I think it’s huge from that standpoint. We’re going to do everything we can to win the game.”

Sunday’s match against the 2018 MLS Cup champions is the first in a stretch of three games in a week for the Lions. Orlando City is coming off a 2-0 loss to Toronto FC while the Five Stripes appear to have overcome a slow start and have won their last three matches, outscoring their opponents by a combined 6-0. 

Orlando City goalkeeper Brian Rowe said he’s been anticipating Sunday’s matchup.

“Regardless of who’s on the pitch for them, they’ve got a great team and that stadium out there, the atmosphere, it’s always going to be a test,” Rowe said. “But it’s something that I know we’re looking forward to, stepping up and competing.”

He added that even though the environment will be hostile, the team is excited to get to Atlanta. He added that after a certain amount of people, the crowd noise just becomes “white noise.”

“I’ve had the opportunity at the Rose Bowl, a 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 kind of outside noise,” Rowe said. 

Mueller agreed with the veteran goalkeeper.

“I think that after you hit about, maybe 20,000, anything above that it’s kind of just all the same, right?” Mueller said. “You’re kind of just on the pitch, you just see the ball. You’re kind of in the game. Everything else you just block out and you’re just there in the moment.”

Meram in the mix

Former Orlando City winger Justin Meram was recently traded to Atlanta United from the Columbus Crew, and United coach Frank De Boer confirmed Meram will be available for Sunday’s match.

Meram, who was acquired by Orlando City from the Columbus Crew via trade during the 2018 offseason, spent about half a season with the Lions before he was traded back to the Crew. Meram struggled to find form with the Lions and he became the subject of intense fan criticism. He spoke to Pro Soccer USA about the negative social media commentary he faced and how it adversely impacted him.

Critics of Meram posted on social media after his trade to Atlanta United was announced, with many of them referencing his time in Orlando.

“They’re still holding onto something that they shouldn’t be, and I’ve moved on with my life,” Meram told reporters in Atlanta Friday after his first training session. “My time there was difficult, not only for myself but for others. I respect them and the people that treated me well, and for the most part, that’s what it was.”

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