Atlanta United and Orlando City played out a largely uninspiring draw at the Exploria Stadium in Orlando to open the much-anticipated 2021 MLS season. Fan excitement was high from both clubs coming into the match, with Orlando City coming off their best-ever season and eager to build, and Atlanta United opening their first domestic campaign under new manager Gabriel Heinze. After Atlanta’s pair of recent victories over Costa Rican side Alajuelense in the CONCACAF Champions League, United’s supporters may have been expecting more from their club against their most hated rivals. Still, they will have to be satisfied with a point on the road.
United manager Heinze cautiously chose to start the match with captain Josef Martinez on the bench after Martinez played 66 minutes in the midweek Champions League home leg against Alajuelense. Martinez’s health is absolutely crucial to Atlanta’s success this campaign, and this decision will be seen by many as prudent as Martinez continues his comeback from a devastating ACL injury against Nashville last season. Experienced striker and United newcomer Lisandro Lopez led the line in Martinez’s absence. Several other offseason additions made their MLS debuts, including former River Plate man Santiago Sosa.
United certainly had the better of the first half, although this was a typical early-season match featuring a general lack of sharpness and that final killer move for both sides. The first half was typified by wayward passing and featured few clear-cut chances, but new Orlando City designated player Pato did have a penalty claim. It was denied, however, after it was clear that he threw himself in front of Miles Robinson. Early in the 2nd half, United keeper Brad Guzan made a clear error which nearly led to a City goal but redeemed himself with a fantastic reflex save in the 72nd minute after Pato’s shot deflected off Anton Walkes. Josef Martinez made his long-awaited MLS return in the 75th minute, coming on for Lisandro Lopez. As the afternoon in the Florida heat wore on, the match became increasingly stretched despite the hydration breaks and extra substitutes allowed for each team. The final 20 minutes of the match were when a goal appeared most likely, and Josef Martinez uncharacteristically missed a set-piece header in the 83rd minute that would’ve more than likely been the match-winner. Atlanta continued to push for the goal and looked the side more likely to score, with yet another offseason addition, Franco Ibarra, lashing a strong shot from outside the box in the 90th minute. In the end, however, each team came away with a point and positives for them to build on as they continue their respective MLS campaigns.