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Orlando City focused on playing its best defense, shutting down potent Atlanta United

Atlanta United defender Franco Escobar (2) has his attempt blocked by Orlando City defender Mohamed El-Munir (13) during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

SANFORD, Fla. — Orlando City’s biggest weakness this season has been a leaky defense.

The Lions (7-15-2, 23 points) have stopped just one club – the Philadelphia Union – from scoring in league play this season. During 19 of the club’s 24 league matches, the Lions have given up multiple goals.

Orlando City’s back line, which has been beset by injuries all season, bears the brunt of the blame, but new coach James O’Connor has stressed collective defending. Before the club’s 3-2 loss to D.C. United, O’Connor said Orlando City’s defense should start with the striker.

Once again, Orlando City’s defense will be put to the test. Rival Atlanta United is in town for match at 8 p.m. Friday that will be featured on ESPN. The Five Stripes lead the Supporters’ Shield race and pace MLS with 53 goals.

O’Connor said he wants to see the Lions (14th in goals scored with 37) create problems for Atlanta United, but he added United has dangerous players who must be accounted for.

“There’s lots of things that we need to look at,” O’Connor said. “I think, for us, obviously we’ve been able to score goals. I think trying to make sure we have good understanding of defensive principles is probably the biggest thing we’ve been going through. Getting good understanding of what’s required of a very good team.”

Venezuelan striker Josef Martinez (27 goals) is one of those dangerous players, and he’ll be motivated on Friday. He’s going for the MLS single-season goals record and has already scored twice this season against the Lions – once in each of Atlanta’s two victories over Orlando City.

Holding midfielder Uri Rosell said a win over Atlanta United would be a good way to turn the struggling Lions’ season around.

“It’s going to be a very difficult game for us, but hopefully for [Atlanta], too,” Rosell said. “They are up top, but for us, we’ve got to be on our best level. We [have to] concentrate, focus and, at the end, it’s another game. We’ve got to be there all the time and try to do our game and make them suffer.

“They have really good players. Very fast players. At the end, it’s not just one player. Not Josef Martinez. We’ve got to be prepared for that.”

After a bye week that included training and team building at IMG Academy in Bradenton, the message of collective defending has permeated the club.

“I think we definitely need to work on team defending,” centerback Shane O’Neill said. “I think we can point out individual errors, but it’s a team game. I think we need to work on that the whole way through and kind of hammer down the details of how we want to defend.

“I think you can talk all you want about back-four issues – and I think we have to be better, there’s no doubt about that – but I think it’s also, there’s 11 guys on the field and we have to defend with all 11 players. That’s key to, moving forward, how we’re going to be able to stop teams.”

Right back Scott Sutter agreed and said, with 10 matches left in a tough season, it goes without saying Orlando City’s team defense needs work. Atlanta United’s attack is well-known and it’ll take a 90-minute effort to stop the Five Stripes.

“It’s not just the strikers that score the goals,” Sutter said. “It’s a collective team effort, going forward and playing the ball fast and quick around the opponents. It’s the same with the defending, obviously. For me, as a defender, you kind of do take it a bit more personally and think, ‘Why are we conceding so many goals.’ I think it’s down to concentration and simple errors. Errors I think we can stop.

“I don’t think it’s a big … like we don’t know exactly how or why the goals are coming. I think it’s down to simple errors we need to stop. It’s the whole team. We need to defend as a whole and attack as a whole.”

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