It was Spring in Los Angeles, and the scene was set for a historic evening in Major League Soccer. The inaugural ‘El Trafico’ clash, as world soccer’s newest derby has become known, was well underway at a sold-out Stub Hub Centre in the Carson district of the City of Angels. Hosts Los Angeles Galaxy were trailing cross-town rivals Los Angeles FC 3-1 when an unmistakable chant began to ring out amongst the 27,000-strong crowd: ‘We want Zlatan, we want Zlatan!’ Before long, their prayers were answered, and out from the dugout stepped an Adonis, standing 6 feet 5 inches with his trademark brown mane giving him the look of a messiah about to step out and liberate this team of mortals from the jaws of defeat. Minutes later, the fourth official’s board went up, and it was Sebastian Lletget who would be making way. Every bit the antithesis of Zlatan in terms of his career success thus far, the substitution was almost symbolic of this new dawn in the history of the country’s most successful soccer franchise. Lletget, formerly on the books of West Ham United, was released by the hammers without making a single appearance and has spent his time since then playing his trade in LA, with modest success.
One would be hard pushed to find a figure in the crowd that day who would have bemoaned the American’s removal from play, his presence having been a side note in what was to be an occasion of such grandeur never witnessed before in this burgeoning league. With the crowd noise suddenly amplified tenfold, an inspired Galaxy immediately kicked into gear. Chris Pontius pulling a goal back for the hosts, the final act before this game truly became the Zlatan show. With 80 minutes on the clock, a clearance forward loops just over the head of Norwegian forward Ola Kamara and bounces up 35 yards from goal. In other words, strike range for Mr. Ibrahimović, who unleashes a fierce volley which soars into the back of the visiting net, 3-3, game on. It was inevitable by now, the script was written, there was only going to be one matchwinner. With the game entering stoppage time, former Chelsea full-back Ashley Cole picked the ball up on the left-flank and sent in a teasing cross. Amidst a sea of bodies, Zlatan rose up, evaded a litany of desperate lunges and sent the ball flying past the helpless Tyler Miller. This was spectacular, this was Hollywood, this was Zlatan.
Unlike many of his predecessors who came to ply their trade in the MLS in the twilight of their playing days, Zlatan’s career has remained on something of a steady trajectory throughout his 30’s. Following a successful period in Milan, a move to PSG at age 31 heralded four straight titles, over 150 goals and a move to Manchester United. Zlatan has compared himself to Benjamin Button, an analogy which is difficult to argue with considering the statistics. Even a brief spell in Manchester saw Ibra lift three trophies and bag 29 goals.
What ultimately led to the move stateside was an injury sustained in a Europa league clash with Anderlecht which all but ended his spell in England. What is curious about Zlatan’s move to LA is the wages which he is reportedly earning. Most sources seem to be claiming that Zlatan accepted a staggering 95 per cent pay cut to facilitate the transfer, cancelling his €22 million per annum contract with Manchester United for a basic salary of €1.2million at Galaxy. This is at odds with the popular perception that stars attracted to MLS are merely mercenaries in search of one last payday before retirement. In Zlatan’s case, not only did he leave behind a lucrative deal in the Premier League, he also turned down far more financially attractive offers from elsewhere. If sources are to be believed, a Chinese club offered a deal in excess of €100million, which begs the question: What is it that drew Ibrahimovic to LA? ‘Putting on my shoes and doing what I’ve done for the last 20 years? Trust me, that has no price’, was Zlatan’s answer to this line of questioning in a recent appearance on ESPN’s sports centre, another of many appearances he has made on American media since making the move. Indeed, on the day the transfer was announced, the typically understated Zlatan took out a full-page ad in the LA Times which simply read: ‘Your Welcome’.
While it is obvious that acquiring a player of such calibre is a no-brainer for any club in America’s top flight, for LA Galaxy the timing of this move could not have been better. This season saw their monopoly over the Los Angeles soccer fanbase finally ended by the emergence of a new franchise across town, Los Angeles FC. Backed by the millions of Malaysian billionaire Vincent Tan, and boasting a celebrity ownership group featuring star names such as Will Ferrell, Magic Johnson and Mia Hamm, they are very much the ‘it’ club of Major League Soccer at present and their season tickets sold out before the club had even kicked a ball. The new rivals have also made sensible moves on the field, hiring seasoned American coach Bob Bradley to lead their maiden side, and adding quality in their ranks in the form of Mexican international Carlos Vela, and Uruguayan prospect Diego Rossi. Galaxy meanwhile have been on something of a downward spiral. Boasting the league record number of titles, long gone are the heady days of Beckham, Donovan and company, with the team finishing rock bottom in the Western Conference last season. The stars of the past were replaced by ageing veterans in the form of Jermaine Jones and Steven Gerrard, who flattered to deceive for the most part. All things considered, something needed to be done to curb the flow of momentum moving across town, and the signing of Zlatan ensures that.
So, what is Zlatan walking into in Los Angeles? As the club has made no secret of, it is something of a rebuilding project, which he is sure to be a central part of. The club made a shrewd acquisition in hiring experienced MLS coach Sigi Schmid to lead their side this season, as well as making a wealth of movements in the transfer market. The big name signing of the summer prior to Zlatan’s arrival was Mexican international Jonathan Dos Santos, who joins his brother Giovanni in California. In addition, several players have been acquired from Europe, such as Norwegian international Jorgen Skjelvik, Venezuelan defender Rory Feltscher and American international Perry Kitchen. As well as proven MLS players in the form of the aforementioned Ola Kamara who recorded a credible 19 goals for Columbus Crew last term, and US national team attacking midfielder Pontius, formerly of DC United and Philadelphia Union. For many, Zlatan represents the final piece of the jigsaw in what is the makings of a very strong MLS side, with all the ingredients present to make a big push for the play-offs this season.
In terms of the league as a whole, as great as the furore around Zlatan’s arrival has been, the situation he will find himself arriving into in MLS is a stark contrast to what David Beckham found less than a decade ago, with the league as a whole in a much stronger position now than it has ever been before. Ibra aside, the league has moved on from focussing on the purchasing of ageing European players, with many recent signings suggesting a shift towards prioritising the acquisition of young, talented South Americans who view MLS as a stepping stone to Europe. Atlanta’s big money signings Miguel Almiron and Ezequiel Barco epitomise this recent trend. Meanwhile in Canada, Toronto FC’s dynasty has seen proven, European-based talent moving in the prime of their careers, with the designated player trio of Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore leading the side to a dominant MLS Cup win in 2017. In addition to a re-evaluation of the league’s transfer policy, there has also been a big push to keep hold of home-grown produce who, in the past, would have been bundled straight on planes to Europe.
Nowadays, promising American talents see the MLS as a good base from which to progress their careers, which has seen the emergence of a band of national team stars who have brought up the overall quality of the league. Names such as Jordan Morris, Paul Arriola and Kellyn Acosta spring to mind in this regard. That said, this particular trend has not been without its critics, with many putting the US National Team’s recent failure in World Cup qualification down to the lack of European-based players in their ranks, which some feel has hindered their overall development. Taking all of this into account, the league that Zlatan now finds himself is far from a ‘retirement league’ as many commentators have lazily labelled it in the past. With 23 teams, exciting new franchises attracting crowds in excess of 70,000, and top coaches such as Tata Martino and Patrick Vieira, Major League Soccer’s credibility can no longer be questioned. Not to mention the few old-timers still hanging around to keep Zlatan company, with world-cup winners Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Villa playing their trades in Chicago and New York respectively.
It is fair to say that, even at age 36, Zlatan’s pedigree is at a different level to anything that the league has seen thus far. Big names such as Andrea Pirlo and Thierry Henry were clearly a shadow of their former selves by the time they had made their way to the land of opportunity. While success stories such as Robbie Keane and Juan Pablo Angel, although hugely successful, lacked the star power that Zlatan brings to the table. If he can stay injury free, it is inconceivable that he should be anything but a major success in Los Angeles, and with talk of a comeback to the Swedish national team for this summer’s world cup, he won’t be lacking in motivation. At present, Chicago Fire’s Hungarian striker Nemanja Nikolic serves as the benchmark for goal scoring prowess stateside, as he recorded 24 goals last term. With a dangerous Scandinavian partnership with Kamara ready to be formed, and the Latin creativity of the Dos Santos brothers in-behind, there is no reason why Zlatan Ibrahimović cannot smash such records with relative ease. The stage is set, as he said himself: ‘the lion is ready to conquer America’.
Chris Foley – Sports Editor