Zlatan dominates El Trafico because it's one thing that actually motivates him

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored two more goals against LAFC on Sunday, bringing his total to eight in the rivalry. (USA Today)
Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored two more goals against LAFC on Sunday, bringing his total to eight in the rivalry. (USA Today)

LOS ANGELES — One minute and 46 seconds.

A month’s worth of anticipation for perhaps the biggest Major League Soccer game of the season vanished that quickly. Draw any conclusions you’d like from the 3-3 stalemate between LAFC and the Los Angeles Galaxy, but one remains unmistakable – Zlatan Ibrahimovic is king of El Trafico.

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Because he wants to be.

“It’s five games and I enjoy when I play against them,” the Galaxy superstar said about LAFC. “I think when we play home it’s more global. This stadium is too small for me here but I make the stadium bounce anyway so it looks double big when I play here.”

He doesn’t talk like that about other teams, at least not specifically. He isn’t so consistently magnificent against other teams, either.

On Sunday, the home fans at Banc of California Stadium were barely able to settle into their seats before they saw the 37-year-old Swede slice through the defense and beat LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller with a low shot, extending his arms and grilling the crowd as he usually does.

Teammates hounded him in celebration as Jonathan dos Santos tapped the LA logo on his jersey while staring into the swarm of black shirts in the stands.

Thirteen minutes later, Ibra was blowing kisses at those same fans after dribbling past Miller and putting his second in the net.

It’s a familiar sight, and no coincidence that his biggest moments in a league he publicly shames have come against local foe LAFC. His brace Sunday brings his tally to eight goals in five unbeaten games for the Galaxy against their rivals. The prior meeting he had a magical hat trick. The first clash, his debut, he had a historic screamer from distance and a winner in stoppage time. The list goes on.

But this time, unlike in July, he took a different approach and didn’t offer many of his proverbial jabs aimed at the opposition ahead of the fifth Los Angeles Derby.

“Weak people fail. Strong people win,” Zlatan said earlier in the week. “I don’t try to get in somebody’s head or try to get them out of balance by speaking. I play my my game, I try to do what I’m best at and I succeed.”

Thing is, Ibra and the Galaxy have been camping out in LAFC’s minds since that inaugural game back in March 2018. Every Clasico Angelino is a fresh opportunity and every time it ends in the same disappointing result, regardless if the stats and performances on the pitch say LAFC was superior.

“There’s a part to it that still stings and it will continue to hang over our heads,” LAFC manager Bob Bradley said about being winless against the Galaxy. “But what goes with that is the part of continuing to grow as a team and I still think that the package of things it takes to be a great team, most are going in the right direction. The last part is still this understanding of in the biggest games, with the emotion and everything, how to still make sure that you try to win, but you don’t do it in a crazy way.”

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The Black and Gold are still seeking how to manage those high-intensity moments and the frantic start, which saw them concede three goals in 16 minutes, push that mental burden to the forefront.

Meanwhile, the biggest bully in the schoolyard thrives under those same dire situations. Ibrahimovic has played for some of the most prestigious clubs in the world and scored all over the globe, crossing prominent venues off his list. Do you expect El Trafico to faze him?

He’s clearly not impressed by Fiats revving their engines around his Ferrari horsepower, but he is undoubtedly motivated in cynical fashion by this rivalry. When the pressure is at its peak, you should always expect a player of that nature to show out.

And that begs the question: Has MLS even seen the best of Zlatan yet?

Last year he finished with 22 goals and the Galaxy missed the playoffs. Now with a whole month left in the regular season, Ibra has already matched that number in five fewer games as they battle for seeding in the Western Conference. A motivated Zlatan, alongside his immediately impactful partner Cristian Pavon, could lead Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s side on a scary run at the perfect time.

Ibrahimovic may not like the postseason format, but it could end up working to his advantage and providing the league with more epic moments.

If the Galaxy finish the regular season in fourth or fifth place (they’re currently fourth) and win their first-round matchup, they’ll be right back at Banc of California Stadium sometime in October for a postseason El Trafico extravaganza.

Any other top-seven spot pushes them to the opposite side of the bracket, distancing themselves from LAFC but also potentially setting up what could be a historic Western Conference Finals between the rivals.

Does Zlatan want to see them in the playoffs?

“Absolutely,” he answered without hesitation.

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