Zlatan — not the Galaxy — has owned El Tráfico, and his likely departure poses major questions

With Zlatan Ibrahimovic likely out the door, the Los Angeles Galaxy have some serious work to do. (Reuters)
With Zlatan Ibrahimovic likely out the door, the Los Angeles Galaxy have some serious work to do. (Reuters)

LAFC may finally have gotten its first win in six tries over the L.A. Galaxy, but make no mistake.

The Galaxy haven’t owned this rivalry. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has owned this rivalry. And he’s about to take that ownership with him.

Where? Who knows. Not Los Angeles, according to widespread feeling. And that’s a big problem for the Galaxy.

His 53 goals in 58 games, including a joint-record nine in El Tráfico, speak for themselves. So does his résumé. The goal he scored in Thursday’s Western Conference semifinal? He didn’t score that in the 55th minute. He scored that in previous games against LAFC, when his petrifying greatness fostered such intimidation it welled up inside goalkeeper Tyler Miller and allowed the ball to rattle through his shaky arms and legs.

“This is nothing,” Ibrahimovic said afterwards of Banc of California Stadium, LAFC’s home ground. “Coming here (to) play, not being disrespectful, but it’s like a training for me because the stadium is too small for me. I used to play in front of 80,000.”

Don’t like his arrogance? Fair enough. Comparatively speaking, it’s more than earned. A “Ferrari among Fiats” might be pushing it, but there’s no denying he’s been the driving force for Major League Soccer’s most successful franchise the whole time he’s been here.

Where did that get the Galaxy? They snapped a two-year playoff drought, yes, but they also just lost the most meaningful match yet against LAFC. In fact, the one-sidedness of the rivalry is the best thing they had going for them. The only thing they had going for them.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic's goal against LAFC in Thursday's Western Conference semifinal might be the last of his MLS career. (Reuters)
Zlatan Ibrahimovic's goal against LAFC in Thursday's Western Conference semifinal might be the last of his MLS career. (Reuters)

That’s not good enough for this club. The only five-time champion in MLS history, the Galaxy have always had the stars to match their nickname. It’s encoded in their team-building approach. The names of Cobi Jones and Landon Donovan and David Beckham and Robbie Keane are as shiny as the trophies they won.

Ibrahimovic belongs in that group. Problem is, the team is no longer just headlined by the star. It’s carried by the star.

Much has been made of the Galaxy’s defensive frailty, and no, this is not the setup for some swerve into a more telling observation, because this tells a large chunk of the story. They conceded 59 times during the regular season, more than any other playoff team including the New England Revolution, which went through a midseason makeover under Bruce Arena.

Two of the defenders the Galaxy started Thursday weren’t on the team when the calendar flipped to 2019. The other two were LA Galaxy II products who have struggled for consistency.

Is this any way to build a backline? Slapdash while feigning scrutiny? For all the flair going forward, the Galaxy have traditionally been sturdy and reliable defensively to protect against lapses.

Nowadays, they just hope Ibrahimovic scores enough. Soon that won’t be an option.

To say the Galaxy have won primarily because they’ve bought stars is not meant to cheapen their success. They’ve had savvy buys all over the pitch. Two more arrived this season in the form of loanees: Boca Juniors playmaker Cristian Pavón and Manchester City winger Uriel Antuna. Both are in their early 20s, and both looked very good in their short time in Los Angeles. (Or Carson, if you ask an LAFC fan.)

Neither of their futures are nailed down. Antuna just had his City contract extended, while Pavón will return to Argentina now that the MLS season is up.

The Galaxy need them to come back. And even that’s not really enough, as Zlatan is most likely leaving the United States and taking his towering personality and turbo goal-scoring rate elsewhere.

So where do the goals come from? Who takes the mantle? How does a team that yo-yo’d its way into the fifth seed avoid dropping back out of the playoffs entirely?

“What happens next year, I don’t know,” Ibrahimovic said. “If I stay or not — I think for MLS it’s good because the whole world will watch it. If I don’t stay, nobody will remember what MLS is.”

He’s wrong about that. But if you swap “MLS” with “Galaxy”, he’s a little too close to the truth for comfort.

Andy Deossa contributed to this story.

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