Rivalry Week turns intensity up a notch in MLS

It’s rivalry week in Major League Soccer, but there’s one match that would be important even if there weren’t rivals involved.

On Friday night, Atlanta United will visit Orlando City, a matchup that has grown in intensity in the two seasons since Atlanta joined the league as an expansion team.

All eyes will be on United striker Josef Martinez, who is on the verge of making MLS history.

Last weekend in a 3-1 United victory over the Crew, Martinez scored his 27th goal of the season to tie the record for most in a single season. He joined Tampa Bay’s Roy Lassiter (1996), San Jose’s Chris Wondolowski (2012), and the Red Bulls’ Bradley Wright-Phillips (2014).

The 25-year-old Venezuelan was asked afterward about joining the elite group.

“I mean, I tied it, but what I really want is to break it. So once I break it, I’ll be even more happy,” he said.

Martinez scored in the 31st minute, dedicating his goal to his pregnant aunt, who lives with him, by tucking the ball under his shirt.

“I thought about it, and I had thought about doing it before at some point this season. But I wanted it to be a special occasion,” he said afterward.

Martinez is in his second season in MLS. His first year he scored 19 goals in 21 matches. His 46 (and counting) goals in back-to-back seasons are a league record. His six career hat tricks also top MLS.

Martinez has scored in eight straight games, a game shy of the league record set last season by Portland’s Diego Valeri.

Friday night’s game is the first of nine games remaining, so it’s entirely possible that Martinez won’t just break the record, but pad it. He tied the mark in just 25 games this season, putting his average at over a goal a game.

“The track record speaks for itself. It’s incredible. It really is,” United defender Michael Parkhurst said. “The fact that that record has stood for as long as it has, and he’s crushing it in his first full season. Last season, he missed months; I don’t know how many games, but a lot. This season in his first full year, he’s crushing it. It’s unbelievable.”

Atlanta sits atop the Eastern Conference at 15-4-6, while Orlando is in 10th at 7-15-2. The Union won the first two meetings this season.

Among some of the other matches for rivalry week, which kicks off Wednesday with a match between the Red Bulls and NYCFC:

CASCADIA CUP: The Portland Timbers, who had a 15-match unbeaten streak going before losing their last three games, host Cascadia rival Seattle on Sunday. The Sounders, meanwhile, have a club-record six-game winning streak going into the match.

“We’re still fighting for a playoff spot. So, I think for us, we’ve had a run of very good games. But I think we’re not going to view it like that. We’re not going to get complacent,” Seattle midfielder Harry Shipp said. “I think the confidence is there. Also, we’re trying to fight for as high of a playoff seed as possible. I think for us, we’ve done a pretty good job the last two months.”

The Timbers have won the previous two meetings this season. Because of the unbalanced schedule, the first meeting (a 1-0 Portland victory) won’t count toward the three-way rivalry with the Vancouver Whitecaps.

EL TRAFICO: Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored in his first match with the Galaxy against LAFC. He now has 15 goals to tie for second in the league going into Friday night’s game between the two teams at StubHub Center.

It will be the third meeting this season: The Galaxy won the first one and the two teams played to a draw in the second. LAFC, in its first season, has won two straight while the Galaxy are coming off a humbling 5-0 loss in Seattle.

TEXAS DERBY: This rivalry, between FC Dallas and the Houston Dynamo, has one of the most unusual trophies in pro sports, a replica 19th century Mountain Howitzer cannon. Dallas is the top team in the West while Houston has lost five straight league games. The two teams played to a 1-1 tie in their first meeting this season.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN CUP: The rivalry between Real Salt Lake and the Colorado Rapids hasn’t been much of a competition, with RSL winning the Rocky Mountain Cup for the last nine seasons. RSL won the first meeting and tied the second, but Colorado has home field for this one.

ATLANTIC CUP: The rivalry between the New York Red Bulls and DC United is the longest running in league play, dating to 1996. The Red Bulls are the defending champions, but United has a new offensive weapon in Wayne Rooney.

Rooney was named the league’s Player of the Week after scoring two goals in last week’s victory at home against the Timbers. The English star has three goals and three assists in his eight games with the team. United has gone 5-2-1 over that span.

The match is set for Sunday at Red Bull Arena.