Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s current stint in MLS could best be described as vibrant. From a 40-yard volley minutes into his debut to choking NYCFC goalkeeper Sean Johnson and only getting a yellow card, the Swede has constantly been in the limelight. As Zlatan goes past his 1-year mark in American soccer, I’ll take a look back at the impact his time in the U.S. has had on his legacy, the Galaxy, and the league as a whole.
Even as a diehard Galaxy fan myself, and a personal admirer of Zlatan, I was concerned about rumors linking him with a move to LA. There was doubts about the longevity of such a move, how much an aging striker, fresh off the back of a major knee-injury that had sidelined him for months, could contribute to a struggling Galaxy side. Would a big-money, big-name veteran star be a move in the right direction for a team so clearly in need of an injection of youth and homegrown talent? My expectations were skeptical at best when I heard the transfer had been confirmed.
Yet Zlatan’s larger-than-life persona seemed to perfectly suit the Los Angeles lifestyle, his Twitter unveiling already generating a massive audience before even stepping foot on the pitch. And for this reason alone, his move to MLS has benefited the league in terms of greater viewership and outreach to a new audience of football fans. Whenever a player of his caliber, his reputation, his history, moves to MLS, despite his declining physical ability, the league will get more exposure. Beyond the possible special treatment Zlatan sometimes gets given his on-the-field aggressive antics, his move has clearly had a net gain on the league, but is it the same for his own club?
The Galaxy had been slumping badly in the season prior to Zlatan’s arrival, a dismal shadow of a club that used to take a playoff spot as almost a given year-in and year-out. Many argued that a prioritization of local talent would provide an aging squad with a splash of much-needed youth, but the signing of Zlatan seemed to conflict with this. Alas, it seemed like the Galaxy were not prepared to adopt a youth-first recruitment philosophy, which only seemed to their own detriment. As Atlanta United had shown, recruiting young North and South American talent rather than signing big-name veterans could bring success even in the dawn of a new franchise. The unwillingness to reorient to youth talent is even more puzzling considering that Southern California is such a hotbed for players.
Zlatan has definitely helped MLS’s social media insights with his seemingly endless production of outrageous goals (here is his latest). But beyond his output of goals, which has undoubtedly helped the Galaxy, he has struggled to provide much else. His inability to guide the Galaxy into the playoffs last season, especially his no-show performance against the Houston Dynamo in the final match, can serve as the ultimate failure for a man who considers himself a serial winner. The side that surrounded him last season wasn’t without its faults, but this season he has proven to be an impediment to an otherwise youthful and energetic squad. His lack of mobility, given his age, should come as no surprise, but his move-less, shout-more playstyle butts heads with the endless energy of other Galaxy players such as Uriel Antuna. Under new coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the players around Zlatan have often had to adapt their playstyle around the Swede, heaving cross after cross when other methods could be more suitable under a different striker.
Undoubtedly, Zlatan’s prolific stint in MLS has been impressive, considering his massive injury prior to the move and his declining physical ability. Multiple times he has stolen points with a moment of brilliance that few other players in the world would be capable of replicating. Nevertheless, his failure to reach the playoffs last season can be viewed as a blemish on his American journey, but a deep playoff run this season could change that. In the context of his footballing career, Zlatan’s Galaxy stint has so far missed the mark, but it isn’t over. Overall, the place he occupies in this Galaxy team may often hinder the team’s style of play, but ultimately results will be only thing that matters. For now, MLS and Don Garber should be thankful for the Swede’s massive persona and the attention he hauls in for the blossoming league.
By: Brandon Duran