CARSON, Calif. — Half the players scrimmaged in green pinnies Wednesday, half in gray shirts alone. “Man on!” the Los Angeles Galaxy yelled. “Switch!” “Heyheyhey!” It was a fairly standard soccer practice, really, nothing-to-see-here ordinariness. What had everyone abuzz was the player they weren’t seeing.
“Why isn’t he?” asked another.
Even when he’s absent, it seems, Zlatan Ibrahimovic has transfixed a city, and a league.
The Swedish all-world striker arrived from Manchester United on March 29, met in the Southern California darkness by flashes of iPhone cameras, thrust-forth Sharpies, chants of his name, unintelligible screeches and a viral-ready hashtag: “#zLAtan.” Sidelined by right knee surgery, he hadn’t played a match in more than three months. Two days later, he came on as a substitute against new rival Los Angeles FC, scored spectacularly to tie the game, then scored again to win it.
“It’s good. It’s exciting,” Ibrahimovic, 36, said Wednesday — which, for the record, he spent undergoing precautionary treatment on that knee. “Obviously I have to adapt, learn the [MLS] game and see how it works. I look, I learn, and when that is done, I go for the kill.”
Such public swaggering is commonplace for Ibrahimovic, a 6-foot-5 personification of sporting bravado and the audacious talent to back it up. Ever-quotable, he refers to himself often in the third person, and sometimes as something else entirely. He announced his signing with the Galaxy by posting on Twitter an image of himself, godlike, arm-wrestling the devil, then by taking out a full-page advertisement in the Los Angeles Times that read simply: “Dear Los Angeles, You’re welcome.” At one point during his introductory news conference, he summarized his emotions about the transfer by cracking that “the lion is hungry.”
Yet Ibrahimovic, who the Galaxy says will appear next week on “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” is just the latest star for a franchise fittingly used to them. His locker, the coveted corner spot, was once home to Landon Donovan and Steven Gerrard. Robbie Keane scored 83 MLS goals here after joining from England in 2011. David Beckham was the league’s first big, and perhaps still biggest, signing. Ibrahimovic, a former centerpiece at the likes of Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain, feels close.
“You just get kind of conditioned that it’s normal at the Galaxy now,” said defender Dave Romney, a member of the club since 2015.
Also apparently normal, at least behind the scenes? Ibrahimovic himself.
“He’s been great in the locker room, good guy to have around,” said former D.C. United midfielder Perry Kitchen, who signed with the Galaxy in January. “I can only say good things.”
That includes, of course, on the field.
While his signing resurfaced MLS’s weary “retirement league” reputation among some observers, Ibrahimovic remains only one season removed from having scored 17 times in 28 Premier League matches. The year before, he compiled 38 goals and 13 assists in 31 matches in the French first division, plus an additional 10 and five in Champions League play.
“Everyone knows his quality,” Galaxy defender Rolf Feltscher said.
“By him just stepping on the field, guys automatically want to be at a better level,” Kitchen said.
The April 2017 knee injury, which Ibrahimovic at the time mysteriously deemed “more than the ACL, but I will keep it personal,” was the first major physical issue of a lengthy career. He returned for Manchester United just seven months later, played seven games and, after years of rumored moves to L.A., cemented one.
According to Sports Illustrated, he is making a curiously low $3 million over two years. According to most, he is taking a significant step down in quality of competition.
Outwardly, at least, he is unfazed by either.
“I’m happy, and I’m here because I want to be part of it,” Ibrahimovic said. As for the level of play, he said: “For me, how I feel, it doesn’t matter where I am. I have to still do my job. I have to make the difference. That is the pressure I put on myself.”
In his debut, he did make the difference. In the follow-up, Sunday’s 2-0 home loss to Sporting Kansas City, his substitution stirred more hopeful long balls than attacking verve.
The Galaxy (2-2-1), which has won a record five MLS Cup titles, is regrouping after a year in which it finished with eight wins, the lowest mark in the league and tied for its lowest-ever total with the 2008 outfit, which played four fewer games.
Grounding their 2018 turnaround in late Zlatan magic would be foolish, teammates know. But it’s great spectacle.
“As soon as they see him get off the bench, start warming up, the crowd goes crazy,” said Carlisa Perdomo, a local elementary school teacher and the leader of Galaxians, the team’s oldest supporters’ group. “Then, of course, as soon as they see he’s going to come in, the crowd goes bonkers.”
Chicago will be next to experience it. The Fire, anchored by one of Ibrahimovic’s former United teammates, German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger, announced Wednesday that its game Saturday against the Galaxy had sold out. Attendance at suburban Chicago’s Toyota Park, which lists its seating capacity at 20,000 for soccer, had peaked previously this season at 14,021, in the Fire’s home opener.
“He’s in that elite group,” Galaxy Coach Sigi Schmid said of Ibrahimovic. “He’s going to draw attention wherever he goes around the league.”
Traveling for matches is hardly new to Ibrahimovic, but the quirks of MLS traveling will be. The Galaxy was to fly commercial Thursday, as is league custom. Asked whether Ibrahimovic would fly coach or be granted one of the few allotted first-class seats, Schmid replied, “That’s for our team.”
Either way: four hours, time-zone switches, jet lag. You can try to explain the toll of it, Schmid said, but to truly understand, “you’ve got to experience it.”
What does Ibrahimovic think?
“No problem,” he responded when asked Wednesday, and fair enough: Aside from the occasional knee injection, he has had few, if any, so far.
An earlier version of the story incorrectly reported that the Galaxy has won four MLS Cup titles.
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