Prior to his arrival there were months of tabloid speculation. Although the league had moved away from the practice of signing aging stars past their prime, rumors of Zlatan Ibrahimovic potentially joining MLS had remained a hotly debated topic. He had actually been linked to a possible Stateside move for years, but a serious knee injury in 2017 incurred while playing for Manchester United most likely prevented him from joining sooner.
Once it became official that Ibrahimovic would be joining the LA Galaxy, the football world collectively held their breath in anticipation. In typical Zlatan fashion, he boldly announced his arrival by taking out a full page in The Los Angeles Times and simply writing, “Dear Los Angeles, You’re Welcome.” The rest of the page remained blank with the exception of his signature at the bottom.
In all likelihood, Ibrahimovic’s signing was an LA Galaxy front office reaction made in response to their fledgling crosstown adversary. Having begun play in 2018, LAFC had built a new stadium in downtown Los Angeles while steadfastly growing a rabid fanbase. Coincidentally, Ibrahimovic was set to make his highly anticipated debut against their city rival in the very first El Trafico.
Ibrahimovic did not disappoint after coming into the game during the second half. With two separate touches, he scored two freakish goals that led to an improbable 4-3 comeback victory. LAFC’s Carlos Vela had also scored two fantastic goals but was outdone in the end. Interestingly, while understanding that Vela had been signed in order to appeal to LA’s sizable Latino population, Ibra’s signing was a firm challenge given that the Swedish superstar’s appeal was on an international level.
Throughout his tenure in MLS, Ibrahimovic was the ultimate heel, similar to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson during his heydays in professional wrestling. You either loved him or loved to hate him — he elicited strong reactions only. He sent both teammates and opponents flying without prejudice in whichever direction he deemed fit.
Here, I am like a Ferrari among Fiats. And it can happen that the Ferrari can become the Fiat, or the Fiat can become the Ferrari.”
When he wasn’t scoring ridiculous goals that caused even opposing fans to cheer, he continued to deliver endless soundbites, that were at times both insulting and hilarious. When discussing and comparing MLS to the leagues in Europe and South America, he didn’t hold back.
“MLS is not the level of Europe, to be honest,” he said. “Before, I played with players either on my level or close to it. Which makes the game connect easier. Here, I am like a Ferrari among Fiats. And it can happen that the Ferrari can become the Fiat, or the Fiat can become the Ferrari.”
He had no qualms about making statements that seemed to take a swipe at teammates, opponents, and even the entire league at large. That was the ironic beauty of it all. His bigger-than-life persona and undeniable charisma were laid bare for all to see without any hint of shame or remorse.
Ibrahimovic had the unique gift of being able to attract non-fans to the league and cause visceral reactions from otherwise casual fans. This rare quality gave the league much more attention than typically warranted. I, like many others, looked forward to seeing what he would do or say next on a nearly daily basis.
This ability to cause a rise in people had a profound effect on his rivals as well. Vela had arguably his best season in 2019 during which he found himself competing head-to-head against Zlatan for bragging rights as LA’s alpha male. This spurred him on to greater heights and catapulted him to winning both the Golden Boot and MVP awards.
It’s telling that since Ibrahimovic’s departure from the league, Vela’s performance has significantly dropped. Injuries notwithstanding, it’s apparent that his competitive drive has nearly evaporated overnight without the added competition and motivation that was provided daily from Ibrahimovic’s nearby presence.
Similarly, MLS does not have the same je ne sais quoi as before. When Ibrahimovic was around, there seemed to be a prevailing sense of bubbling excitement just under the surface that was tinged with a slight sense of dangerous unpredictability. Waking up every day, I would be curious to see if he had perhaps slapped someone the night before or made some other outlandish remark during a post-game interview. Without his dominating presence, the league feels like a previously-filled balloon that has now been deflated.
From the teams’ perspective, both LA clubs missed the playoffs this year. LA Galaxy in particular has not fared well, having missed the playoffs two years in a row since Ibrahimovic’s return to Serie A. Even more so than that, the significance of El Trafico, with all of its excitement and scrutiny, has definitely dampened.
Before leaving, while his MLS contract was about to run out, Ibrahimovic stated that his future wasn’t about the money.
“What happens next year? I don’t know,” he said. “If I stay it will be good for MLS because the whole world will watch it. If I don’t stay, nobody will remember what MLS is.”
While MLS fans mulled over the audacity of that statement, he called the league’s bluff and departed just as audaciously as he arrived saying, “I came, I saw, I conquered. Thank you LA Galaxy for making me feel alive again. To the Galaxy fans – you wanted Zlatan, I gave you Zlatan. You are welcome. The story continues … now go back to [watching] baseball.”
In a way, he was right. Now that Ibrahimovic is no longer playing in the league, it does feel like MLS has lost a lot of its weight and importance. People may not be forgetting MLS as he predicted, but it does feel a lot more drab without his outsized presence.