After Orlando City finally got the better of Atlanta United last season, one of Major League Soccer's most attractive rivalries could be set for a banner year in 2021, beginning Saturday when the sides open their seasons at Orlando.
Orlando had gone winless in the matchup from 2017 to 2019 before improving markedly under first-year coach Oscar Pareja in 2020, winning two against Atlanta United with two ties. That was part of a much better performance overall from the Lions, who reached their first postseason in their sixth year in the league.
Orlando prevailed over New York City FC on penalties in the first round of last year's playoffs before falling 3-1 to New England in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
In order to truly reach heights similar to Atlanta United will requires winning trophies.
Pareja understands that well.
"We understand that we were short on the final prize in the league and it's something that we want so much to give to the community," Pareja said. "We expect nothing but to just keep going, and to keep competing for the first places."
The glitziest addition to the Lions is former Brazil national team attacker Alexandre Pato. The biggest loss may be American striker Daryl Dike, currently on loan in the English second-tier at Barnsley and playing well enough that it might lead to a permanent European move.
Atlanta has continued to be one of the league's most active teams in the South America market, with former River Plate (Argentina) midfielder Santiago Sosa highlighting the new incoming class. And don't forget that all-time club leading scorer Josef Martinez is back after missing nearly all of last season with a torn ACL.
And following a miserable 2020, first-year coach Gabriel Heinze begins 2021 with a head start, having dispatched Costa Rica's Alajuelense 2-0 on aggregate in the first round of the CONCACAF Champions League. Atlanta earned a 1-0 victory in Leg 2 at home on Tuesday.
"It's so important," Atlanta defender Brooks Lennon said. "Playing these two competitive games before our first MLS game is so good mentally for us and physically as well."
The United moves into the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals against the Philadelphia Union in two weeks. But first, they have the MLS season to launch.
--Field Level Media