Zlatan Ibrahimović: The LA Galaxy Years

zlatan in los angeles

“Dear Los Angeles, You’re Welcome”

The Los Angeles Galaxy are the marquee franchise in Major League Soccer. They have won the most trophies and have featured some of the best and most famous players in the league’s history such as David Beckham, Robbie Keane, and Steven Gerrard. Some of the most well known American players such as Cobi Jones and Landon Donovan have also pulled on the sashed kits.

The Beckham years were a well-documented media circus that captured America’s attention. But for all the glitz and glamour of the Beckham arrival, the arrival of Zlatan Ibrahimović was different. 

Zlatan’s arrival didn’t get the attention of the non-sporting media, so in typical Zlatan fashion, he got theirs. 

The striker took out a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times that said simply, “Dear Los Angeles, you’re welcome.” In a town full of stars, that is one way to get people’s attention. 

The big Swede arrived at an important time for the Galaxy. The franchise’s best player, Landon Donovan, was gone. Their most recent big-name stars Robbie Keane and Steven Gerrard were gone. So was their MLS Cup-winning coach, Bruce Arena, who had departed to rescue the United States qualification campaign for the 2018 World Cup. 

Not only were the Galaxy a team in transition, but their supremacy in Los Angeles was being challenged. A new team, Los Angeles Football Club, was beginning to play in Major League Soccer and they had caught the attention of the city. 

LAFC had signed big names, such as Mexican National Team star Carlos Vela, and were being coached by American legend Bob Bradley. Not only that but they had a cool factor that had drained a bit from the Galaxy. The new club had a stadium built in the heart of Los Angeles, while the Galaxy play 15 miles south of downtown. LAFC had star power too. The team was owned by a group that included celebrities like Will Ferrell, Magic Johnson, and Mia Hamm, just to name a few. 

The Galaxy was under threat of losing eyeballs and butts in seats if they didn’t act fast. 

Zlatan changed all of that immediately. 

Eight days after signing for the Galaxy, Zlatan made his debut in a way only he could. The match was the first-ever “El Trafico”, the new local derby between the Galaxy and LAFC. It felt like this single match could turn the tide of soccer in the city.

With his team down 3-2 late in the second half, Zlatan stepped onto the pitch. When asked about it after the match, Zlatan said, “I heard that crowd saying ‘We want Zlatan, we want Zlatan’, so I gave them Zlatan.”

He certainly did. 

Zlatan smashed a 45-yard half volley over the head of the LAFC goalkeeper to tie the game. He ripped off his shirt, ran in front of the stunned and ecstatic Galaxy faithful and did his trademark jumping fist pump celebration. Zlatan had announced his arrival in style. 

But he wasn’t done yet. 

In stoppage time with the game still tied, Zlatan found a cross from Ashley Cole and drifted a header over the head of the LAFC goalkeeper and into the back of the net. The Galaxy had won the game 4-3. 

In less than 30 minutes on the field, Zlatan had given new life and energy to a club under threat. 

Zlatan continued to show his quality throughout the rest of his first season in the States. 

Zlatan’s first hattrick came in July against Orlando City in a comeback effort. All three goals coming within 24 minutes in the second half. 

In a 5-3 defeat in Toronto, Zlatan scored his 500th career goal in stunning style. In a move the can only be described as a taekwondo volley, Zlatan spun and kicked a looped pass off the post and into the net. The goal was meaningless to the game, but Zlatan hoped it meant something to Toronto fans. He remarked after the match that he was “happy for Toronto because they’ll be remembered as my 500th victim.”

All season long, Zlatan was “banging them in for fun”, as the saying goes. But all was not well in Hollywood. 

The final day of the season came and the Galaxy needed a win to get themselves into the playoffs. It shouldn’t have been any trouble as they were playing at home against the Houston Dynamo who were in last place in the Western Conference and had nothing to play for but pride. 

Up 2-0 early on to the Dynamo, the Galaxy allowed three unanswered goals and lost the match 3-2. 

There would be no playoffs for the Galaxy who managed just a 13-12-9 record on the season. They finished 7th in the Western Conference and their 48 points were only the 13th best total in the entire league. 

Zlatan did all he could, scoring 22 goals and assisting 10. He was named in the MLS Best XI team and was a finalist for league MVP, but there would be no trophies to lift at the end of his first season.

There were changes for the Galaxy ahead of the 2019 MLS season. They had a new head coach, former Boca Juniors manager and MLS Cup-winning player, Guillermo Barros Schelotto. They also had a new captain. Zlatan was given the armband for the season. 

Ibrahimovic started his second MLS season as hot as he had his first, scoring 3 goals in the Galaxy’s first 2 matches. 

During the summer, he continued his dominance over LAFC by scoring a perfect hattrick in a 3-2 win over their cross-town rivals. You could imagine that with all the goals Zlatan has scored all around the world, that a hattrick in Major League Soccer would have less meaning to him than goals he’s scored for Barcelona or Milan, but this did not appear to be the case.

Zlatan showed the fire still burned inside him with this performance. The fire was lit by questions ahead of the match about who was the better talent in LA, Ibra or Carlos Vela, who at the time was leading the league in goals.  

After he scored the first goal he ran, arms opened wide and celebrated the goal directly in front of the LAFC bench. The message was clear. You don’t doubt Zlatan. 

After the match, he said, “I have a lot of respect for Vela. But you did one mistake, you compare him with me. That was your biggest mistake.”

The Galaxy was better in Zlatan’s second season. The team finished in 5th place in the Western Conference and qualified for the playoffs. 

They made it past Minnesota United in the first round of the playoffs with a 2-1 victory. Zlatan did not score. 

In the second round of the playoffs, the Western Conference Semifinals, the Galaxy were once again matched up with their bitter rivals, LAFC. 

It was a showdown of epic proportions. Once again, the league’s two biggest stars were pitted against each other. LAFC was the league’s top team, but Zlatan and the Galaxy had their number. 

LAFC took an early 2-0 lead through Vela before Zlatan provided an assist to Cristian Pavon to draw closer. Early in the second half, Zlatan would draw the Galaxy level with a shot that was mishandled by the goalkeeper.

That was a close as the Galaxy would come though, as LAFC would pull away in the second half and the match finished 5-3. 

That ended Zlatan’s great American adventure. There would be no Hollywood ending that matched the drama of his first match. Although there was another announcement that only Zlatan could make. 

The tweet was pure Zlatan. “You wanted Zlatan, I gave you Zlatan. You are welcome.” 

Before the playoff game against Minnesota, Ibrahimović reflected a bit on his time in Los Angeles saying, “I had a good time, good experience. I learned a lot. I came from my injury and I came like a little kid that just wanted to play football. MLS gave me the opportunity and I took it.”

Zlatan left the league having scored 53 times in regular-season games and once in the playoffs. In both seasons he was named MLS Best XI and was a finalist for MLS MVP. 

Was it all Worth It? Was Zlatan’s time in MLS a Success?

In the tweet Zlatan sent announcing his departure he stated that “I came, I saw, I conquered.” But is that actually true? 

Sure, the numbers were huge. Zlatan scored a Galaxy record 30 goals in his final season and a whopping 63.7% of their goals for the two seasons he was in LA. 

But the Galaxy never lived up to the expectations of the club. 

The Galaxy won just 1 playoff game in 2 seasons and didn’t finish higher than 5th. Meanwhile, their wage bill was second highest in the league and Ibrahimović was the highest-paid player in the league’s history, at over $7 million per year

Zlatan would tell you it isn’t his fault and that he did his best. He’s probably right. 

In Zlatan’s mind, he did conquer, even without a trophy. Goals aside, he had a massive impact on the league. 

His number 9 jersey was the top seller in MLS for 2 straight seasons, beating the league MVPs in those seasons. 

His highlight-reel goals made sporting news in a country where MLS is still fighting for air time. 

Zlatan’s presence in the team didn’t make an impact in local attendance. In fact, LA Galaxy’s average home attendance dropped both seasons Zlatan was in town. Not coincidentally there was a new team in town challenging for fans’ attention.

No matter what though, the Los Angeles Galaxy and Major League Soccer is better for having had Zlatan for a short time. 

As Zlatan himself said, “For MLS, it would be good (if I stayed) because the whole world will watch it. If I don’t stay, nobody will remember what MLS is.” 

While that is only partially true, Zlatan’s time in the league may have opened the eyes of some audiences around the world who wouldn’t have otherwise seen MLS. That’s the reason you sign a player like Zlatan Ibrahimović. 

Zlatan Ibrahimović LA Galaxy Stats

LA Galaxy Appearances: 58

LA Galaxy Goals: 53

LA Galaxy Assists: 17

Awards in Major League Soccer: 2 x MLS Best XI, 2 x MLS MVP Finalist, 2018 MLS Goal of the Year, 2018 MLS Newcomer of the Year, one of three players in MLS history to record 20+ goals and 10+ assists in a season.