When the ball struck the back of the net, Zlatan Ibrahimovic sprinted to the stands with his arms wide, roaring. Rolf Feltscher jumped on his back. It was a triumphant celebration as the Galaxy took a two-goal lead, with both goals from Ibrahimovic, on the way to a 3-0 victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday night at StubHub Center.
The victory kept the Galaxy’s playoff hopes alive, with consecutive wins for the first time since July.
With three games to play, the team remains in seventh place as it fights for a playoff spot, one point behind sixth-place Real Salt Lake. But the Galaxy extended their lead over the eighth-place Whitecaps, who took their third straight loss in Craig Dalrymple’s first game as the acting head coach.
“He’s a great target player, as well,” Galaxy coach Dominic Kinnear said of Ibrahimovic, “so he’s got a lot of facets to his game that we’re seeing live, which is nice.”
The last game between the two teams ended as a scoreless draw March 24. But it took the Galaxy only until the fourth minute to score Saturday.
When Sebastian Lletget was tripped up inside, the Galaxy earned a penalty kick, taken by Ibrahimovic. The team’s leading scorer drilled a shot to the bottom left corner, giving the Galaxy an early lead.
The Galaxy made it 2-0 in the 58th minute, as Ibrahimovic chipped a shot to the top of the goal after dashing into shooting position on the right side.
The goal was Ibrahimovic’s 20th of the season, passing Bradley Wright-Phillips for second-most in MLS.
The Galaxy improved to 8-2-3 when Ibrahimovic scores. He took three shots early in the game, one that that veered wide right and one blocked by Vancouver’s defense, as the Galaxy pressed the Whitecaps’ defense by dominating possession, 60.8% to 39.2% at the half.
“We’re getting pressure on the ball,” Kinnear said, “which is making it easier for other people to see where the ball’s going.”
But as the half wore on, the Whitecaps built their aggression. They broke up the Galaxy’s chances by intercepting off-target passes and created chances to pressure the Galaxy defense. After recording one shot in the first 28 minutes of the half, the Whitecaps made five more to tie the Galaxy in shots taken at halftime, with six.
Early in the second half, the Galaxy struggled to capitalize on chances. One left Ibrahimovic lying in the grass in front of the goal, staring at the sky after another failed attempt, a diving kick that landed wide left.
The Whitecaps got their best chance to close the gap in the 69th minute, when Kei Kamara booted Russell Teibert’s deflected shot to the goal, with Galaxy keeper David Bingham out of reach to make the save. But the shot flew narrowly to the right of the post.
The Galaxy added another goal on a penalty kick by Romain Alessandrini in the 77th minute, after Ibrahimovic drew a foul. The Whitecaps remained competitive, taking six more shots in the second half.
But the Galaxy maintained the edge in possession, and did not relinquish the lead, or even a goal, to complete their second straight shutout, the first time the team has recorded back-to-back shutouts since wins over Montreal and San Jose on May 21 and 25.
As the game ended, Ibrahimovic calmed. He yanked off his shirt as he exchanged high fives with his teammates on the field. Together, the teammates raised their arms and clapped their hands as confetti trickled onto the field.
They shared a moment of relief, and relaxation, amidst a fight for a postseason appearance that must be almost flawless to succeed.