ORLANDO, Fla. — Orlando City will have to take down its fiercest rival in order to reach its first tournament final.
The Lions will host Atlanta United Tuesday in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals, pushing to advance in the tournament that features amateur and professional clubs fighting to be crowned the top soccer team in the United States. The winner qualifies for the CONCACAF Champions League.
Almost immediately after the final whistle of the Lions’ 2-0 victory over FC Dallas on Saturday, supporters in the Wall section began chants about Atlanta. The fans’ distaste for its rival was clear even during MLS All-Star Week, when Exploria Stadium rumbled with boos whenever Atlanta players Brad Guzan or Josef Martínez touched the ball.
Part of the edge of the rivalry comes from the fact Orlando City has never beaten Atlanta. The teams have faced off seven times, resulting in five losses and two draws. When the two teams met earlier this year, Pity Martínez scored his first MLS goal in the opening minutes to take a 1-0 lead that Atlanta held onto for the remainder of the match.
Even against a different opponent, Orlando City forward Chris Mueller said the stakes of the semifinal match would make it one of the biggest in the club’s history. The addition of the Atlanta rivalry will only up the ante on Tuesday night.
“It’s a huge game, there’s no hiding that fact,” Mueller said. “We’re ready. We know all of the hype that’s coming in around it. It brings a little bit of extra flair, a little bit of a vibe, a little bit more of a bit to the game. I think going against Atlanta in such a big game like this, I think it’s gonna be a special night.”
The most obvious focus for Orlando City will be the presence of Josef Martínez on the attack. The reigning league MVP broke the goal-scoring record last year with Atlanta, and although his pace hasn’t been quite the same this season, Martínez has already netted 19 goals so far this year, the second most in the league behind LAFC’s Carlos Vela. The forward has scored in nine consecutive matches, continuing to fan the flames with a penalty kick in the team’s 3-0 win over the Galaxy on Saturday.
Orlando City didn’t have much time to rest after Saturday’s game, but the Lions have been focused on preparing for Tuesday’s match since advancing in the Open Cup. For Lions coach James O’Connor, the challenge will be balancing the emotions of the moment.
“I think both teams will be desperate to win,” O’Connor said. “For us, it’s about being intentional on how we’re going to put our stamp on the game and giving our players the freedom to express themselves and making sure that they don’t get any kind of stage fright.”
A key to shutting down that offense will be goalkeeper Adam Grinwis, who has started every Open Cup game between the posts for Orlando City. In the team’s quarterfinal victory over New York City FC, Grinwis recorded two penalty kick saves, punching away the second to lift the team to the semifinals.
The keeper has made 12 saves during the course of the first three games of the U.S. Open Cup, and although he has yet to keep a clean sheet, the Lions’ defense has allowed only one goal per game, a lower average than its regular season goals against ratio. Fellow goalkeeper Brian Rowe said Grinwis’ performance in goal has been critical in the team’s success so far in the tournament.
“Goalkeeper is a hard position to step in after not playing for awhile and to perform well,” Rowe said. “Throughout the game you only get a few opportunities to make saves when the team needs you, when you don’t have a rhythm it’s tough to step in and just be thrown right into the fire. He’s done a tremendous job and I’ve told him openly I couldn’t be happier for him.”
One challenge of fielding a team in the U.S. Open Cup is the roster restrictions of the tournament, which only allows five international players to suit up for any game. Orlando City’s typical roster includes nine international players, and while some — such as Nani and starting centerbacks Robin Jansson and Lamine Sané — have been givens throughout the tournament, the remaining two slots pose a challenge for O’Connor.
The team will continue to field close to a healthy roster as Cristian Higuita continues to work back into training while recovering from a hamstring injury. Defender Shane O’Neill and Alex De John both cleared concussion protocol last week, but they will remain questionable heading into the match.
Forward Santiago Patiño will also be unavailable for the match after he was called up to the Colombian U-23 team.
Orlando City vs. Atlanta United, 7:30
Where: Exploria Stadium
Watch: Streamed online on ESPN+
The Buzz: Orlando City defeated Dallas FC 2-0 at home on Saturday. … Tesho Akindele scored the team’s first goal in the 13th minute assisted by Ruan and Carlos Ascues added a goal in the 92nd minute to seal the victory. … Atlanta United is fresh off a 3-0 victory over the Los Angeles Galaxy on Saturday. … The Lions are led by star designated player Nani, who has goals (8) and assists (8), but the captain hasn’t scored in nine matches. … Akindele is tied with Nani in goals scored, with eight netted so far this season … Atlanta United is led on the offensive end by 2018 MLS MVP Josef Martinez, who has netted 18 goals this year.