I saw the greatest game of my life unfold at StubHub Center on Saturday, and it was all thanks to Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The Swedish superstar was jetlagged and maladjusted to the LA Galaxy, which had announced his addition only three days before. When he jogged onto the pitch to a ferocious roar in the 71st minute, Ibrahimovic’s new team was trailing 3-1 to LAFC and struggling to find momentum. He fixed that quickly by helping to set up Chris Pontius for a goal only a minute later.
Then, Zlatan did what he does best — in a one-touch stunner he slammed from 40 yards away to tie up the game, then drove in a vicious header in stoppage time to seal a breathless comeback win.
“They wanted Zlatan,” he said, with a grin in his postgame press conference, delivered to a packed room of reporters shoved close together to get a glimpse of the star. “So I gave them Zlatan.”
With his dazzling tricks and larger-than-life personality, Ibrahimovic was a sensation from the start when the MLS announced that he would be relocating to America to join the Galaxy. As the all-time leading scorer for the Swedish national team, his stardom is up there with greats like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and the excitement surrounding his arrival was palpable at StubHub Center on his debut day.
But as he acclimates to America, Zlatan will have to avoid the trap that many international stars in the MLS fall into — a bogged, boring descent into retirement.
The MLS, and the Galaxy in particular, have long cemented the idea that this league is an ideal place for international superstars. After all, spending a few seasons with the Galaxy does seem like a nice way to go out. Who could pass up easy access to the beach, a short drive to Disneyland and warm weather year-round?
But the added barb of this moniker of “retirement league” is that the MLS is an ideal place for worn out, washed up players to go revive their glory by playing against softer competition for a few years. What it means when fans of the European or Mexican leagues call the MLS a “retirement league” is that American soccer still isn’t being taken quite as seriously.
On one hand, it makes sense. I mean, this country can put together the finest women’s team in the world one year, but can’t even scrape together a World Cup qualifier for its men’s side a few years later. This is the country where FC Dallas struggles to top 20,000 at a home game even when the Mexican national team can sell out the same stadium on a weekday in the pouring rain. Soccer isn’t the first, second or even third biggest sport of America today. We don’t take our soccer all that seriously — why should anyone else?
The MLS has been struggling to answer these questions since it was first founded in 1993. Carving out a niche for fans in a country obsessed with football, basketball and baseball, while simultaneously attempting to drag the focus of established soccer fans away from Europe, is no small task. The obvious solution seemed to be to get a name big enough to force fans of the sport to watch the game.
It started with David Beckham, then Robbie Keane, then Kaka and Steven Gerrard, and now, finally Ibrahimovic. About half of these stars (Beckham, Keane, Gerrard, Ibrahimovic) signed contracts with the Galaxy, while Kaka chose an East Coast’s tropical locale in Orlando. They stirred up fan excitement and helped to string along the success of the Galaxy and sell a lot of jerseys with international names on an American kit.
But all of these big names came at a price — they were heroes of the past, former world players of the year who were well past their prime when they arrived stateside. Their time in the MLS was neither the peak nor even an extremely noticeable period of their international careers.
This is the biggest challenge that Ibrahimovic will be forced to face as he digs into his role in his new club. Zlatan is an incredible player, but he suffered a devastating knee injury last year — the first major physical setback of his career. In the moments after surgery, lying motionless on his hospital bed, the international sensation thought his career was over.
That injury is what prompted his move to the U.S., a decision he said he should have made “years ago” during the postgame press conference at StubHub Center on Saturday. His trademark confidence was back after the debut performance, and he jokingly likened himself to Benjamin Button when asked how he felt, saying, “I was born old and I will die young.”
But he also showed signs of his changing physicality — or, perhaps, just the jet lag — when admitting that he had been exhausted in the late March heat, running out of gas after playing only 20 minutes. Maybe this is just another side of Ibrahimovic’s brash honesty, an expected symptom of injury recovery and acclimation to a new climate. Only time will tell how much Zlatan has left in the tank, but it’s a guarantee that he’ll give all of us a show, no matter what.
And if his greatest legacy on the league is Saturday, which many have been described as the greatest regular season MLS game of all time? Well, that’s still not that bad of a way to go out.
Julia Poe is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column, “Poe’s Perspective,” runs Tuesdays.