Josef Martinez and Atlanta United may have taken the scenic route to get back atop the Eastern Conference, but they show no signs of slowing down now that they are there.
Martinez looks to run his MLS-record goal-scoring streak to 12 matches Friday night when they face an Orlando City SC side in desperate need of three points to stay in the hunt at the bottom of the conference playoff chase.
Atlanta has overcome its slow start with first-year coach Frank de Boer and new playmaker Pity Martinez thanks in large part to Josef Martinez, who is threatening to better his single-season record of 31 goals set last season in helping the Five Stripes (14-9-3) win the MLS Cup in their second year of existence.
The Venezuela international matched the MLS goal-scoring record last year by scoring in nine consecutive matches and has taken it two steps further this term in this extended purple patch of scoring. Martinez, who is chasing LAFC's Carlos Vela for the Golden Boot, has 21 goals in 23 league matches - 16 of them coming during a run that dates back to May 24 when he scored against Real Salt Lake in a 2-1 defeat.
He completed the scoring in Sunday's 2-0 victory at Portland in a rematch of last year's MLS Cup, meeting a through ball by Julian Gressel and beating Timbers keeper Steve Clark from 18 yards in the opening minute of the second half. Leandro Gonzalez Pirez scored the other goal for Atlanta, and Brad Guzan made five saves for his league-best 12th shutout - highlighted by a diving left-handed save in the second half that preserved the two-goal lead.
"We have to understand why we are in the standing right now in this position," de Boer said after Atlanta moved ahead of Philadelphia by virtue of having more wins. "And this because ... of course how we want to play but if we want to keep this going on, then we have to be mentally prepared because physically this is how we want to do and don't get sloppy in that kind of thing and if you get sloppy, you will get punished because we take a lot of risks.
"But if we are in good shape, then it's a fantastic system and we can beat everybody I think."
Orlando City (9-11-7) technically is the only club to prevent Martinez from scoring in the last three months, but the Lions still lost 2-0 to the Five Stripes in the Open Cup semis Aug. 6. They enter this match on 34 points, behind Montreal for the final playoff spot by virtue of wins and ahead of Toronto FC on goal difference.
The Lions threw away two points Saturday in their 1-1 draw at Minnesota, conceding an equalizer in second-half stoppage time and then having a penalty for them overturned by VAR.
"It obviously feels like a defeat when you concede so late," coach James O'Connor said. "It was such a cheap goal. ... If they would've scored a quality goal from maybe 25 yards out then maybe you can just say there was nothing we could do, but to concede a goal like that so late was just incredibly frustrating for everybody."
If there was a positive for the Lions, it was Nani ending his nine-match goal drought with his penalty and ninth goal in all competitions. The former Portugal international, though, still has not netted in the run of play since his May 19 brace versus FC Cincinnati.
Atlanta has quickly established dominance in this series with six wins and two draws in all competitions. The Five Stripes won 1-0 at home May 12 on Pity Martinez's goal in the 14th minute.