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Orlando City chases elusive win over rival Atlanta United

Orlando City must find a way to neutralize Atlanta United star striker Josef Martínez as the Lions push to make the playoffs.

Orlando City SC defender Robin Jansson (left) heads the ball against the Atlanta United during a U.S. Open Cup match at Exploria Stadium. (Douglas DeFelice-USA TODAY Sports)

SANFORD, Fla. — Forward Tesho Akindele knows what a win over Atlanta would mean for Orlando City.

During a meet-and-greet on Monday, the game was all fans wanted to talk about. Every single person he met repeated the same phrase — “We can’t wait for Friday.”

Matches against Atlanta United are met with equal parts excitement and dread in Orlando.

On one hand, the rivalry has been embraced ravenously by the club, best reflected in the layered, pulley-operated tifo that the supporters section spent hours constructing for the last time the teams met.

On the other hand, Atlanta has dominated the series with six wins and two draws.

For the Lions, Friday’s match offers the chance to avenge their U.S. Open Cup loss to the Five Stripes, earn an elusive win over their biggest rival and claim valuable three points as they push to make the playoffs.

Akindele said Orlando City must strike early.

“We need to take advantage of our early chances,” Akindele said. “We’ve had chances early that I think, if we score that the game’s completely different and we probably walk away with the win. We need to make sure when we get those early chances, we take them.”

The teams last met less than three weeks ago when Atlanta United knocked Orlando City out of the Open Cup, clinching a 2-0 win in the semifinal match. The momentum of the game could’ve have changed dramatically, however, if Dom Dwyer’s goal in the fourth minute had not been called back for offsides.

The near goal showed a glimpse of what could have been for the Lions. The team went on to create chances, but only placed two of its 12 shots on frame. While looking ahead to Friday’s rematch, Orlando City coach James O’Connor continues to emphasis the importance of finishing early chances.

“We’ve had games this year where we’ve been pretty ruthless with converting chances,” O’Connor said. “We need to have that level of ruthlessness.”

Whenever a team faces Atlanta United, the main offensive threat is obvious — Josef Martínez. The record-setting striker has scored in 11 consecutive games and put away 21 goals so far this season.

Although Martínez didn’t play in the Open Cup semifinal match, his presence will provide a constant threat for the Orlando City defense.

The Lions will have maintain a consistent defensive front to neutralize Martínez. While Orlando City has worked to build its defensive rhythm in the final half of the season, two of its past three games have featured a frenzied goal that negated a potential win.

“You have to be focused for 90 minutes, because if you switch off for a minute, they could score a goal,” Kyle Smith said. “Martínez has scored a lot of goals and you never know when he’s gonna score so you have to be sure you’re aware of him at all times. We just need to make sure we’re locked in and know where he is at all times.”

Scouting report

Orlando City vs. Atlanta United, 8

Where: Exploria Stadium

Watch: ESPN, ESPN+

The Buzz: Orlando City secured a 1-1 draw at Minnesota United FC on Saturday. … Atlanta United picked up a 2-0 road win over Portland on Sunday. … Nani and Tesho Akindele are tied for the Lions’ lead in scoring with nine apiece. Nani also paces Orlando City in assists with eight. … Josef Martínez leads the Atlanta United attack with 21 goals.

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