SANFORD, Fla. — Orlando City’s seven-match losing skid began with a loss to Atlanta United.
The Lions were on a six-match win streak when the Five Stripes came to town and since that 2-1 loss on a rainy evening, Orlando City has struggled. The Lions (6-9-1, 19 points) fired coach Jason Kreis after the sixth loss in the current slide and have been shut out three times this month.
Still, it’s not like Atlanta United has been unstoppable since beating Orlando City. They’re still the top club in MLS, yes, but since beating Orlando City, Atlanta United has gone 2-1-3 in league play and was recently bounced out of the U.S. Open Cup by the Chicago Fire.
Atlanta is still the top club in MLS – the only team with 10 wins so far this season – but it has never beaten Orlando City in Georgia. The Lions face Atlanta United (10-3-4, 34 points) at 7 p.m. on Saturday in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
Both matches between the two clubs inside of Atlanta United’s home stadium – at first it was Bobby Dodd Stadium, then it was Mercedes-Benz Stadium – ended in draws.
“I see it as a huge challenge and a great opportunity to go up there in front of a hostile crowd, a place where we did well last year in that stadium,” Murphy said.
“Hopefully, the players will take it as a great opportunity and play with a bit of freedom knowing that nothing’s really expect of them, to go in there and get a result, and sometimes you can surprise people when that happens.”
Midfielder Sacha Kljestan said Orlando City would be willing to cede possession to Atlanta United this weekend — the club was possession-oriented if it means being a bit more solid defensively. The Lions have conceded the first goal of the match in 14 out of their 16 league matches this season.
At the start of the year, that wasn’t an issue. Orlando City frequently mounted comebacks. That isn’t the case anymore.
“I think we’ve got to get all 11 players on the same page for 90 minutes,” Kljestan said. “If that means going into Atlanta and giving up possession and just being able to defend as a team and work hard for 90 minutes, then that’s what it’s got to take.”
This will be Atlanta’s first match of the season with midfielder Darlington Nagbe in the starting XI. He’s expected to miss the next two to three months with an adductor injury. Greg Garza, another starter in the Five Stripes’ victory over Orlando City in May, is also out with a shoulder injury.
Under interim coach Bobby Murphy, Orlando City switched its formation from a 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-3, which morphed into more of a 5-3-2 when Orlando City was defending. Murphy abandoned 3-4-3 in the second half of Orlando City’s 2-0 loss to Montreal in favor of the 4-2-3-1 again.
“With three at the back or five at the back, it’s supposed to shore things up defensively for us and try to keep things tighter and maybe give up possession a little bit more to try to be more sound, defensively. I think that’s the goal right now. I think that’s the goal… to go against Atlanta, to know that they’ll probably have more possession than us, but we’ve got to be able to just hold tight for 90 minutes.
“Obviously, early goals have killed us. In way too many games this season have we given up the first goal and then it changes the play of the game. We have to chase the game more and things like that and it becomes more difficult. It’s just got to be a consistent 90-minute effort from everybody on the field.”
There’s still confidence at Sylvan Lake Park, despite the recent poor run of form.
“You know where sit in the standings, we’re still OK,” Kljestan said. “We’re still in the playoff hunt. I think one result will just flip everything. The sky’s gray right now and everything sucks because we’ve lost seven games in a row in the league, but we’re still in the Open Cup and one win here in the near future kind of throws us right back into the playoff picture and the sky becomes blue result.
“I think we’ve got to be optimistic about what’s still possible for us.”
That “one result” doesn’t have to be a victory, Kljestan said.
“If you go on the road to Atlanta and you get a draw against the best team in the league, yeah, everyone starts to feel good about themselves again,” Kljestan said. “A positive result can do wonders in the league, especially with where we sit right now.”