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Orlando City, Atlanta United can’t be called rivals until Lions catch up

 

Can we now dispense of this silly notion that Orlando City and Atlanta United FC are rivals?

They are not.

Orlando City is not nearly good enough or composed enough to carry that connotation.

Dictionary.com tells us that a rival is “a person or thing that is in a position to dispute another’s preeminence or superiority.”

Right now, Orlando City does not qualify; not after Sunday night’s 2-1 loss to Atlanta United in front of a less-than-capacity, badly behaved crowd at the Purple Palace.

Near the end of the match, after Orlando City’s last-ditch attempt to tie the match had failed, the field was littered with debris from fans who were obviously upset with the officiating. It was an awful look for a fan base that is considered among the most respected and rabid in the league.

And it wasn’t just the crowd that lost its composure; it was Orlando City’s players, too. At one point late in the match, Orlando City’s Sacha Kljestan and Mohamed El-Munir were shouting at each other and had to be separated by teammates.

“It was an emotional, emotional affair from the crowd to the staff to the players,” Orlando City coach Jason Kreis said. “… My message [to the fans] is pretty clear. The crowd is part of our family, but from our point of view … the players started to lose control emotionally, the coaches started losing control emotionally a little bit as well and the crowd was the final piece.

“We can’t be that; we can’t do that. We certainly want to be a very, very difficult place to play, but we need to show the right amount of restraint at home to not being throwing things on the field. We just can’t do that.”

It appears that Atlanta United, in only its second year in the league, has already gotten into Orlando City’s head. Give the Five Stripes credit for not only throwing down the gauntlet and attempting to create this budding rivalry, but for now taking control of it.

It started last year before the first match in series history when the expansion Five Stripes bought a billboard right down from Orlando City Stadium that was wrapped in Atlanta’s red and black colors and tauntingly read, “Orlando, we’re coming to conquer.” And that they did, winning the match 1-0 in front of sell-out crowd of 25,000-plus at the Purple Palace.

Then they played a second match last year, a 1-1 draw, that attracted 45,006 to United’s former home at Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd stadium. And, finally, the last match of 2017 ended in another draw, 3-3, in front of a then-MLS-record crowd of 70,425 at the brand new Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Atlanta’s team and fans not only shocked Orlando City last season; they shocked all of MLS. Orlando City officials and Mayor Buddy Dyer have taken great pride in referring to Orlando as the “Soccer Capital of the South” since the Lions’ first season in the league four years ago. Well, that’s not truly the case anymore. Atlanta has come into MLS and quickly surpassed Orlando on the pitch and in the stands.

Last season, Atlanta became the first expansion team in eight years — since Seattle in 2009 — to make the playoffs in only its first year of existence and did so by leading the league in attendance with an average crowd of 48,200.

Don’t think Orlando’s management and fan base haven’t noticed. There is no doubt that Atlanta has created a sense of urgency for the Lions. Why do you think Orlando City supporter groups showed up at Saturday’s training session with a “Beat Atlanta” banner in hopes of getting their team fired and up and ready for Sunday night’s match.

This was the Lions’ best chance to beat the top team in the Eastern Conference and to tie Atlanta in points at the top of the table, but they just couldn’t get it done despite having some built-in advantages. Orlando City was playing at home and Atlanta — after losing to Sporting KC on Wednesday — was playing its third match in eight days. The Stripes were also playing without starting goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who was red-carded against Sporting KC and therefore suspended for Sunday’s match against Orlando City.

“We’re a team that’s moving forward and Atlanta has shown by the way they finished last year and the way they started this year that they’re the top; they’re the apex,” Kreis said. “They give us a measuring stick to see what we’re striving to be.”

The message is clear:

You’re good, Orlando, but not good enough.

Not good enough to be considered Atlanta’s rival.

Not yet.

Orlando City SC forward Stefano Pinho (29) is tackled by Atlanta United midfielder Jeff Larentowicz (18) during the second half of the game at Orlando City Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports

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