Of course Zlatan Ibrahimovic marked his first game back from injury by scoring both LA Galaxy goals in Sunday night’s 2-1 victory over the Portland Timbers.
Ibrahimovic, as always, was front and center for the entirety of the nationally televised contest. He drew and converted two penalties, the second on a perfectly executed Panenka. He hit a post with an even more audacious karate flick. He got off six shots altogether and even committed three fouls, one of them egregious enough to earn a yellow card.
The one-man performance came exactly a year after Ibrahimovic, the best player of his generation not named Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo, exploded onto the MLS scene with another: his game-winning debut brace off the bench against upstart rival LAFC. And Zlatan hasn’t stopped Zlatan’ing since.
This year, Galaxy will live and die with Ibrahimovic even more than they did in 2018. Despite Zlatan’s 22 goals, the most successful club in MLS history missed the playoffs for a second consecutive season last year. L.A. still re-signed the towering Swede to a rich (and richly deserved) designated player contract that forced them to jettison ineffective Mexican international Giovani dos Santos. Another attacker, Norwegian striker Ola Kamara, also left, sold to a Chinese club just before the start of the 2019 campaign.
Now, the Galaxy’s attack revolves almost exclusively around Ibrahimovic. New coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto made the former Barcelona, Juventus, PSG and Manchester United standout his captain. The message is obvious: The Galaxy are all-in on Zlatan this season.
It’s not an overly bold strategy. Ibrahimovic isn’t your typical 37-year-old. He remains an athletic freak capable of dominating when healthy. He’s averaging a goal every 93 minutes in MLS. Off the field, “Ibra” is still among the most marketable soccer players on the planet. Not many MLS teams would’ve said no to Ibrahimovic last year, or would now.
The Galaxy had been chasing him since 2016, and LAFC’s arrival as an expansion side last season put the city’s original MLS club under pressure to seal the blockbuster deal. It was a total no-brainer. The Galaxy and the league are lucky to have Ibrahimovic. That said, there’s still considerable risk involved in shaping your future around someone who isn’t even under contract for next season.
By all accounts, the Galaxy appear to be in a better place than they were a year ago. Schelotto has them off to a 3-1 start, the lone loss coming during one of the two games Zlatan missed with a sore Achilles tendon. Shrewd and experienced new general manager Dennis te Kloese has helped stem a leaky defense and is still maneuvering to snare Costa Rican center back Giancarlo Gonzalez. But Zlatan remains at the center of the Galaxy’s universe.
Yet for all his production last year, the Galaxy still missed the postseason. They were a .500 team in the 27 games Ibrahimovic played as well as the seven he didn’t. He wasn’t happy with the roster or the coaching and said so. For all his ability, he also arrived with a reputation for challenging teammates and managers throughout his glittering career. Ibrahimovic was frustrated on more than one play on Sunday and sure didn’t hide his disapproval. It’s probably not a coincidence that played for nine different clubs over the course of his career.
Zlatan won titles at almost all of his previous stops, to be fair. But succeeding as a team in parity-driven MLS is often about intangibles as much as talent. "I try to help my team in the best way,” Ibrahimovic said after Sunday’s match, “and the best way is to score goals.”
It’s not the only way. As one of three active players with 500 goals, along with Messi and Ronaldo, everyone knows that Zlatan can finish. Only time will tell if he will be another one-man show again 2019, or if this season he’ll take his teammates along for the ride.
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