In his own not-so-humble words: “Now go back to watch baseball.” Because a league without Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not a league worth watching, at least according to the man himself who confirmed his exit from LA Galaxy and Major League Soccer with a typically brash social media post on Wednesday. The show is over, or at the very least it has packed up and left Hollywood.
Ibrahimovic is now expected to return to Europe, Italy specifically, where Milan, Bologna and Napoli are all believed to be interested in taking on the Swedish striker. But what legacy has he left behind for MLS? As the most headline-worthy football player to have played in North America since Pelé, was Ibrahimovic a good or a bad influence on the league?
His record of 52 goals in 53 starts certainly ranks him among the most prolific MLS players in the league’s 24-year history, but in a country where soccer is still developing as a truly mainstream sport Ibrahimovic will retrospectively be measured by more than just his performances on the pitch.
During his time stateside, Ibrahimovic had his say on MLS’s play-off format (which he criticized), the quality of his teammates (he is “a Ferrari among Fiats,” apparently) and the league’s artificial pitches. He regularly put pressure on MLS, surely making the league uncomfortable with many of his remarks, but did this come from a place of genuine concern or narcissism? Was Ibrahimovic looking after the best interests of his teammates and the league as a whole or just himself?
Part of the problem comes in separating Ibrahimovic from the caricature he has become over the latter part of his career. All too eager to paint himself as some sort of sporting Chuck Norris, working out what is the real Ibrahimovic and what is just another part of the act can be difficult. For instance, when he claimed that “nobody will remember what MLS is” now that he’s gone, did he really mean it? Or was this just performance art from the “This Is Zlatan” playbook?
Despite his extraordinary goalscoring record, Ibrahimovic’s detractors say he “conquered” in the same way he conquered the Premier League during his time at Manchester United. He scored big goals at big times, but failed to get his hands on a championship. Ibrahimovic at least won the Carabao Cup and the Europa League while in England. At LA Galaxy, he finished empty-handed.
While Ibrahimovic undoubtedly upheld his end of the bargain for LA Galaxy, breaking numerous goalscoring records in the season and a half he spent in Carson, his former club will now have a better chance of building a balanced roster. Ibrahimovic was paid a league-high salary of $7.2m by Galaxy. His departure gives them a lot of money to play with. There’s a good chance LA Galaxy are already working on their next marquee designated player.
The departure of Ibrahimovic could mark the end of an era in MLS. One by one, the league’s globally recognizable stars have left over the past few years. Wayne Rooney departed DC United at the end of the regular season, while Sebastian Giovinco was sold by Toronto FC at the start of the year. 2018 also saw David Villa leave New York City FC.
Whether by design or not, MLS seems to be moving away from the strategy of luring aging European stars across the Atlantic in the hope of catching some of their stardust. Just as there’s an argument that Ibrahimovic held back LA Galaxy from becoming a more rounded, complete team, it’s possible that the transfer policy the Swede represented similarly stunted MLS’s wider development.
Clubs like Atlanta United and Los Angeles FC may well have set a new precedent by targeting exciting, young South Americans over big names whose best days are behind them. Miguel Almirón, for instance, may have left a more significant legacy than Ibrahimovic by establishing a trade route between MLS and the Premier League, making the £21m move to Newcastle United from Atlanta United in January. That one transfer made MLS a stepping stone to Europe.
It’s possible that all that Ibrahimovic leaves behind in MLS are memories. In that regard, he was certainly productive. There was his incredible introduction as an LA Galaxy player in the first ever El Tráfico derby, a match which saw him come off the bench to sensationally score a hat-trick and almost single-handedly nab a 4-3 win from 3-1 down. His hat-trick in the 3-2 victory for the Galaxy over LAFC this July was also fairly memorable. And there was the spinning, karate-kick finish against Toronto FC, the 500th goal of his career, among many more incandescent moments.
Nobody could ever claim MLS didn’t get what they paid for. Ibrahimovic might be a fading force, he might have lost a yard of pace and his ability to play two games in a week, but what he produced over the past season and a half was quintessentially Zlatan. Maybe that was enough. Sometimes you just have to enjoy the show and Ibrahimovic certainly put on a good one.
The Guardian Sport