Zlatan Ibrahimovic is only 17 games into his MLS career but it’s safe to say no player in the league’s 23-year history has had a bigger impact in a shorter timespan.
After Ibrahimovic scored three goals and added an assist Sunday, lifting the Galaxy on his broad shoulders and carrying them to a 4-3 win over Orlando City at StubHub Center, it’s probably safe to say he’s just getting warmed up.
“Tonight,” he said with a smile, “was a good day.”
Better when you consider Ibrahimovic is doing all this at 36, just 15 months removed from major knee surgery.
“Even if my age is what it is, I’m still proving it’s not about the age, it’s about how you prepare, how I take care of myself,” he said. “People were worried [about] how old I am. Don’t worry about my age. Worry when I slow down.”
That day seems a long way off, said his coach.
“He’s the most physically imposing player this league has ever had at forward,” said Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid, who is in his 18th MLS season. “When Ibra posts up, it’s like Shaq O’Neal. You just don’t move him.
“And on top of that he still has vision. And on top of that he’s driven. He’s a motivated guy.”
Ibrahimovic needed only 24 minutes of the second half to get his first MLS hat trick, with the first two goals erasing deficits and the third putting the Galaxy ahead to stay. The three scores gave Ibrahimovic 12 in his last eight starts — only four players in the league have that many on the season — while the win extended the Galaxy’s unbeaten streak to nine, their longest in 23 months.
“He’s unguardable,” teammate Chris Pontius said. “You’re not supposed to be that big, that fast and that strong.”
The Galaxy, playing for the third time in eight days, conceded the first goal in the 18th minute when Orlando City’s Cristian Higuita scored at the end of a give-and-go with teammate Sacha Kljestan. It marked the fourth time in as many games that the Galaxy trailed in the first half; in the previous three, they came back and this one, thanks to Ibrahimovic, would be no different.
“We keep doing this, I’ll be 90 by the time the season’s over,” Schmid said. “It’s great for the fans, great for TV. But it’s really hard on me emotionally.”
Ibrahimovic got the comeback started in the 39th minute, heading a long Dave Romney cross to the top of the box for Giovani dos Santos, who collected the ball with his left foot, pushed it a couple of steps to his right to create space, then blasted a right-footed shot into the lower left corner for his first goal since May 5.
The teams would then exchange five goals over the next half an hour — or more precisely, Orlando City and Ibrahimovic would, with the Galaxy striker refusing to let his team lose.
Orlando’s next score came on a Michael Ciani own goal in the final minute of the first half; Ibrahimovic matched that with a header off a Dos Santos cross less than two minutes into the second half. Dom Dwyre then gave Orlando its third lead of the night in the 54th minute, nodding in a left-footed cross from Mohamed El-Munir; Ibrahimovic answered 13 minutes later with a diving header at the near post.
Four minutes later, Ibrahimovic ended the back-and-forth, chesting down a poor clearance by Orlando defender Amro Tarek and volleying in a right-footed shot from the edge of the six-yard box for his 15th goal of the season, finishing his first MLS hat trick.
“Zlatan, that’s what he does,” Schmid said. “He finishes.”
The goal was also the 28th in the last 11 games for the Galaxy, best in the league. And Ibrahimovic celebrated it the way he did his first MLS goal, by ripping off his shirt and dashing up from the goal.
A few minutes after the game, Ibrahimovic did make one concession to age and his balky knee, announcing he would not participate in the All-Star game, which will be played on artificial turf in Atlanta.