As the Zlatan Era ends in the MLS, the league will never be the same

HARRISON, NJ - MAY 04: Zlatan Ibrahimovic #9 of LA Galaxy points during the MLS match between LA Galaxy and New York Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena on May 04 2019 in Harrison, NJ, USA. The Red Bulls won the match with a score of 3 to 2. (Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)
The curious thing about Zlatan Ibrahimović's time stateside is that while he dominated the league, he also had a habit of denigrating it. (Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)

Zlatan Ibrahimović was always different.

A college buddy of mine, Omar, had grown up with him in the same hard-scrabble, immigrant neighborhood of Malmo, Sweden.

“Oh, Zlatan is crazy,” Omar declared the first time the subject of Ibrahimović came up. This must have been in 2003, when Zlatan was beginning to really make his mark at Ajax, and years before he’d develop the supersized persona to match his otherworldly talent. He didn’t mean it in a mental-health sense, although Omar, ironically, would go on to become a psychologist.

What he meant was that there was something very different about Zlatan. And was he ever right.

Some 15 years later, after a triumphant yet fairly peripatetic European career through Juventus, Inter Milan, FC Barcelona, AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester United, he arrived stateside to the Los Angeles Galaxy, hauling an extraordinary 13 league titles in his ample baggage.

He came as advertised, bringing with him his wonder goals, unfailingly colorful quotes – “Los Angeles, welcome to Zlatan” he announced upon his arrival – and sneering charisma. And Fox Sports play-by-play man John Strong spoke for all of American soccer when describing Zlatan’s first goal for the Galaxy in the inaugural Trafico against LAFC – the first of Zlatan’s nine tallies in just five games against the cross-town rivals – an inconceivable 40-yard half-volley.

Oh, come on! COME OOON!!

He’d go on to score an enormous 52 goals in 56 games for the Galaxy, even though at 36 and coming off a serious knee injury that had cut his time with United short, there were real questions about how much he had left to give. But he brought a pedestrian Galaxy team to the doorstep of the playoffs in his first season, before falling short on the final day, and reached the postseason the next year. All the while, the pentalingual Swede was as charming as he was divisive.

And his departure, announced on Twitter by Zlatan himself, of course, and without the 38-year-old’s next destination revealed, was typical Zlatan.

“I came, I saw, I conquered. Thank you, LA Galaxy for making me feel alive again. To the Galaxy fans – you wanted Zlatan, I gave you Zlatan. You are welcome. The story continues… Now go back to watch baseball.”

His departure feels like the end of not only his own era but a broader one, of the revival of the aging-European-star-coming-to-America cliché. Zlatan traveled to Major League Soccer on a wave of luminaries of his generation, like Didier Drogba, Wayne Rooney, Bastian Schweinsteiger who made real impacts after several others – Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Andrea Pirlo – had been high-profile busts. But they’re all gone now, with Zlatan closing the door behind him.

Yet the curious thing about Zlatan’s time stateside is that while he dominated the league, he also had a habit of denigrating it. He openly called the playoff system into question, wondered about the players’ urgency to win during the regular season and declared himself a “Ferrari among Fiats.”

But like all of Zlatan’s teams and leagues before this one, he was never publicly called to account. Because the bargain that you strike when you sign the tempestuous Swede is that you get his goals and you get his charm and his name recognition and you put up with the antics and outbursts, like when he made a lewd gesture to fans as he left the pitch following the Galaxy’s playoff elimination to LAFC.

You might argue that acting with this towering entitlement was his right, in a strange kind of way. He had made this rivalry what it was, alongside the opponents’ star Carlos Vela. And in the process, he’d revived the Galaxy after one of the league’s marquee clubs and record title-holder had suffered through the worst season in its existence.

Because for all the hoopla and occasional outrage, Zlatan remained the consummate professional. His career is littered with incidents of unprovoked violence during games and practice sessions, yet no word has ever been written of the superstar making an underwhelming effort. For that matter, he is a role model with nary a mark against him away from soccer, a devoted family man with a flair for exceptional generosity.

Once, he lifted up his PSG jersey after scoring to reveal the names of people worldwide suffering from hunger written on his body to help raise awareness. Another time, Sweden’s national soccer team for the intellectually disabled asked him for a signed jersey for an auction to help pay for its trip to its own World Cup. “What the hell are you going to do with a shirt?” Zlatan reportedly answered. “How much is it to go?” When he was told it would cost $51,000, he wired over the money.

And for his stern affect, Zlatan was approachable to the media and very much willing to play his part in promoting the league.

This is the duality of Zlatan’s inimitable persona. When you sign Zlatan, you get all of him, the goals, glares, insults and gestures. The Galaxy and MLS got all of him. It’s what made watching him so fun. And it’s what makes him entirely irreplaceable.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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