It’s official: Orlando City opens the 2021 MLS regular season, presented by Orlando Health, on Saturday, April 17 against Atlanta United at Exploria Stadium (3 p.m. ET, Univision/TUDN/Twitter). It will be the seventh-consecutive season in which the Lions begin their campaign at home and the fourth time they’ll be on national television, a testament to the enduring power of the Orlando City fanbase.
Famously, Orlando City has never lost on opening day, going unbeaten in six straight home openers. As an added bonus, not-so-friendly neighbors Atlanta United will be the opponents this year for the very first time. Here’s what we’re looking forward to the most.
Year Two Growth
It’s safe to say that year one didn’t have too many bumps in the road for Oscar Pareja. Orlando City sported a +17 goal differential in just 23 regular season games, played at a 61-point full-season pace, and went to the final of the MLS is Back Tournament. Not only did the Lions achieve their first Audi MLS Cup Playoffs berth, they won their first postseason game in historic fashion.
But when a new coaching staff comes into a club, the second year is typically when everyone is on the same page and, should the marriage prove successful, the team begins to fly.
Take a look at recent MLS trophy history – two of the last three MLS Cup champions feature coaches in their second year in charge (Tata Martino with 2018 Atlanta United and Caleb Porter with 2020 Columbus Crew SC). The 2019 Supporters’ Shield winners LAFC, owners of the League’s single-season points record? Coached by Bob Bradley in his second year.
On April 17, we get to see the first glimpse of what the second year of the Oscar Pareja era looks like. If the first was any indication, buckle up.
After overhauling the roster in 2019 and adding key pieces through the spine in 2020, it looked like Orlando City Executive Vice President of Soccer Operations Luiz Muzzi wouldn’t need to do a whole lot to improve the group for 2021. And sure enough, 24 of the 27 players currently registered on Orlando City’s roster were Lions by the end of the 2020 season.
But Muzzi’s regime has been known to make a splash.
April 17 could give us our first look at Brazilian forward Alexandre Pato in purple. Pato starred for AC Milan alongside former Lions Kaká and Antonio Nocerino before embarking on multiple successful stints in Brazil and China. If his Twitter account is any indication, Orlando City fans can expect a player who is ecstatic to join the purple bloodline and hungry to score goals.
The Lions also added Dutch forward Silvester van der Water, a winger with a nose for goal who was a regular starter in the Eredivisie, the top division in the Netherlands. Van der Water and Pato add further depth and skill to what was already one of MLS’ top attacks in 2020 – the Lions scored 40 goals in just 23 games, good for second in the Eastern Conference and fifth in the league. April 17 could be our first chance to see both in action.
Welcome to the New Age, Josef
2020 was a tough season for Atlanta United. The Five Stripes went through two coaches and missed the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time in their history, in large part thanks to the loss of star striker Josef Martinez to a torn ACL in the 2020 season opener.
Now we know – Josef is set to make his grand return at Exploria Stadium on April 17, nearly 14 months after his injury.
But Josef is returning to a very different reality than the one he left. Orlando City utterly owned Atlanta United in 2020, taking eight points from four matches against the Five Stripes and blowing them out home and away, including a 3-1 win at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in what would be Pity Martinez’s last outing in an Atlanta shirt and a 4-1 romp at Exploria Stadium in October.
Josef Martinez should come face to face with Antonio Carlos for the first time, and not many strikers fared well against the Brazilian and his center back partner Robin Jansson in 2020. The Lions’ dominant defensive duo against the 2018 Landon Donovan MLS MVP will be the matchup to watch on opening day.