The MLS All-Star Game takes center stage on Wednesday, when the league's best (well, most of them, anyway) suit up to take on Juventus at Atlanta United's Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
The league's stars were on point in the final matches leading into the annual summer showcase, with one of the brightest being Atlanta's own Josef Martinez, whose assault on the MLS record book continued with two more goals for the league's top team and Supporters' Shield front-runner.
His two goals were matched by Bayern Munich-bound Alphonso Davies and surpassed by the three scored by Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose exploits, unfortunately, won't be seen against Juventus for reasons explained below.
The star trio headlined the best from an action- and goal-packed Week 22 in MLS.
I. The Lion puts on his hat
Zlatan Ibrahimovic's first MLS hat trick was a sensational one, and it helped bring the Galaxy earn all three points in a match in which it trailed on three occasions. LA has made a habit of falling behind and requiring all-out comebacks, but this one, in a 4-3 win over Orlando City, was tame by its own standards.
Zlatan was the catalyst, setting up Giovani Dos Santos for the first equalizer, before scoring two of his own with his head and delivering the game-winner on a sumptuous self-volley.
Ibrahimovic has 15 goals and six assists in 17 MLS matches. It's safe to say he's been worth the investment.
II. The Lion will now rest
There's nothing quite like the post-hat-trick, late Sunday night/early Monday morning news dump. In the aftermath of Ibrahimovic's hat trick, the Galaxy announced he'd be sitting out the All-Star Game due to a case of...inconvenience?
In practical matters, the Galaxy have played three matches in the last eight days, with Ibrahimovic going the full 90 in all of them. They have another match on Saturday, so that, combined with playing the late game this past Sunday and then the required travel to and back from Atlanta for a midweek match on turf on Wednesday, having Zlatan appear in Atlanta would be unnecessarily taxing on the 36-year-old striker. But from an optics perspective, it's a terrible look. Zlatan is one of the league's top draws, and surely the 70,000+ who will plan to attend (not to mention the rightsholders and MLS HQ) are not going to be pleased with an understudy taking Ibrahimovic's place.
As per MLS policy, Ibrahimovic will be ineligible for LA's match in Colorado on Saturday for missing the All-Star Game for no good reason. So after his feast, the lion will rest.
III. Davies celebrates record move with killer double
So that's what Bayern Munich is paying for.
We didn't need Bayern's validation to know that the kid is for real.
IV. Josef Martinez is going to shatter the record books
The Atlanta United star already has, with his six hat tricks the most in league history (and scored in just 43 games). But he'll continue to when he sets the new single-season goal mark at some point this season. It would appear to be a foregone conclusion after his latest multi-goal performance lifted Atlanta to a 2-1 win over Montreal on Saturday and gave him 24 for the season.
The record of 27, shared by Roy Lassiter, Chris Wondolowski and Bradley Wright-Phillips is in peril, and given that Martinez is averaging a goal per game in MLS, the record will be toast by the beginning of September.
The numbers behind Martinez's excellence are staggering. Beyond the 43 goals and six hat tricks in 43 games is how efficient he's been. This season, his 24 goals have come on just 40 shots on goal and 62 shots total. Last season, his 19 goals came on 32 shots on goal and 67 shots total. Forget denying him goals–you have to deny the opportunities (or his penchant for popping up at the right place at the right time) if you hope to keep him off the scoresheet.
V. Rooney nets his first
Wayne Rooney is on the board in MLS after nutmegging former Manchester United teammate Tim Howard on a shot that the U.S. goalkeeper should have denied. Nevertheless, it's the first of what D.C. hopes is many goals for Rooney after paying handsomely to lure the English legend to MLS.
Rooney's night didn't come without a cost of its own. He suffered a broken nose and had to receive five stitches after taking a head to the face on a stoppage-time corner.
VI. Jozy's back
Is there any doubt Toronto FC was missing Jozy Altidore during his injury absence? The U.S. forward returned last weekend after missing TFC's previous 16 MLS matches, and he returned to the scoresheet on Saturday, after Toronto's second straight win over the Chicago Fire.
The reigning MLS Cup champions are just six points out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, though it's battling three other sides for the place currently held by the New England Revolution. If Altidore can remain healthy, you'd be hard-pressed to bet against the Reds–who went 3-9-4 without him–finding a way in.
VII. Here comes Seattle's second-half surge
We should know better than to count out the Seattle Sounders before August. Gustav Svensson's rocket helped punctuate a 3-1 win over NYCFC on Sunday, the latest three-point haul for a club that looked left for dead a few weeks ago.
With three wins on the spin, the Sounders unbeaten in six, Nicolas Lodeiro rounding into form and Raul Ruidiaz in tow, we could be in for yet another second-half surge to the playoffs for the two-time reigning Western Conference champions. Like Toronto FC, Seattle also must fend off three other challengers in making up a manageable point deficit down the stretch.
VIII. Adi delivers a farewell gift
Fanendo Adi requested a transfer from the Portland Timbers (and, according to ESPN's Taylor Twellman, that new destination will be Cincinnati), but the parting of the ways will be an amicable one after he delivered a game-winning strike in a 2-1 win over the Houston Dynamo. The Timbers are now unbeaten in their last 14, and their march toward a second MLS Cup will go on without the Nigerian striker, who had fallen out of favor despite tallying 54 goals in over four seasons with the club.
IX. FC Dallas keeps getting it done
FC Dallas has continued to power through despite losing midfield centerpieces Mauro Diaz and Kellyn Acosta in outgoing summer transfers and remains atop the Western Conference after a 3-2 win over a slumping Sporting Kansas City side that is now 0-4-1 in its last five matches.
FCD's latest hero was Michael Barrios, who netted a stylish hat trick–he chipped and nutmegged reigning MLS Goalkeeper of the Year Tim Melia–to account for all of his side's goals in the win.
FCD has rebounded well from last season's collapse and how holds a six-point lead over LAFC in the West–though Portland, sitting eight points off the pace, has two matches in hand.
X. Best goal in a losing effort
There were some beauties that went down as mere footnotes this weekend.
How about Ignacio Piatti's upper 90 laser with his left vs. Atlanta?
Or what about Kellyn Acosta's sweet chip into the upper 90 with his right vs. D.C., which opened his account with Colorado?
And then there's Gerso Fernandes's glorious defense-splitting move and left-footed curler vs. FCD:
We'll give the nod to Gerso, but well done all around.
XI. Everything about this was kept 100
Wright-Phillips became the fastest player in MLS history to 100 regular-season goals with his midweek winner vs. D.C. United, and while he wasn't able to replicate his goal-scoring form in Saturday's 3-2 loss to Columbus, he's afforded the grace period after his celebration for hitting the century mark.
Even better than the celebration? The sarcastic rant from Twellman, who had previously held the record for quickest to 100 goals. Highest of high comedy.
Twellman is right, too. There isn't a more humble superstar in the league than BWP, which made his Zlatan-esque, premeditated celebration all the more surprising and hilarious.