Exploria Stadium will host arguably the biggest game in Orlando City‘s MLS history on Tuesday night when the Lions welcome Atlanta United for the semifinals of the U.S. Open Cup at 7:30 p.m. ET.
Orlando City knows the stakes are high — not only is a trip to their first final since the 2013 USL Championship on the line, but the Lions have never beaten Atlanta United since their neighbors to the north joined MLS in 2017 — so head coach James O’Connor is hoping his side can set aside the emotions and focus on the task at hand and put on a strong 90 minute performance.
“The biggest thing is we want to stay process-oriented,” O’Connor said. “The danger is because we’re looking forward to the game is that the emotional aspect that will be involved in a game like this is that people get caught up in the emotion.
“[So] we need to stay very process-oriented. The players have been very strategic in trying to follow a process,” O’Connor added. “I think we’ve done a great job through training in doing that and I think tomorrow we need to make sure we follow a process and don’t get caught up in ‘it’s Atlanta’ I think from our standpoint, it’s just making sure that guys are dialed-in in what we need to do in-game and that we carry out what we believe will bring success in the game.”
Forward Chris Mueller said the team is focused for the match and that “we’re aware of the hype that’s coming in around it,” adding that it would be “amazing” and “special” if the team was able to capture its first win against Atlanta on Tuesday.
Both sides have had equal time to rest and prepare for the match. Atlanta is coming off one of it’s biggest wins of the season, easily taking care of business against a Zlatan-less LA Galaxy side 3-0 at home on Saturday, while the Lions are also coming off of an important victory, taking down FC Dallas 2-0 at home as well to stay in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
O’Connor went almost with almost all of his regular starters against Dallas, leaving only Nani on the bench until the last 20 minutes of the games, and will surely find himself having to make some changes for the semi-final matchup.
While new signing Mauricio Pereyra won’t be eligible for selection due to competition registration, O’Connor will have to decide how to select through his eight other international players, as Open Cup rules only allow for a maximum of five non-domestic players in the 18-man game-day roster.
“That’s a challenge,” he said. “That’s something that we had to sit and go through, and are still going through, in regard to [the] five internationals. We’ve got some big decisions to make with that, and that’s the hard part is when you get a big game like this, we have players who can’t participate because of international status and that’s very challenging.”
Regardless of who’s in the lineup, the goal is the same and the result is the only thing that matters at the end of the night.
“I think for them and for us, I think both teams will be desperate to win. I think in a cup competition, it’s win or go home, so I think that they’re a team that likes to attack,” O’Connor said. “They obviously got some very good players. But also for us, it’s been intentional at home of trying to go and put our stamp on the game and giving our players the freedom to go and express themselves and making sure that they don’t get sort of kind of stage fright. I think that’s the biggest thing for both teams they’ll want the players to go and give a level of performance that keeps them happy.”
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