Zlatan Ibrahimovic acknowledges his first season in MLS was more about getting acclimated to a new league and new teammates. And those introductions went pretty well, with the Swedish superstar’s 22 goals and 10 assists giving him a hand in 48.4% of the Galaxy’s offense.
But the team missed the playoffs. So this year Ibrahimovic is aiming higher.
“I have much more to give,” he said Saturday. “The way we ended the season was not a normal situation for me. Normally where I go, I win.
“After one season with the Galaxy I want to feel I have a challenge to win this thing.”
Ibrahimovic will get his second season started Monday when the Galaxy open training camp with more introductions. Coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto joined the franchise just before New Year’s Day, a month after the Galaxy hired a new general manager, Dennis te Kloese.
Together they’ve been tasked with rejuvenating a team that returns many of the same players it had last season when it missed the postseason for the second year in a row. The Galaxy haven’t played in an MLS Cup since 2014, the longest title-game drought in franchise history.
“It’s going to be a big challenge,” Te Kloese said. “We need to be creative. We will be creative. And we will be able to balance out a few points that need improvement.”
Schelotto, who guided Boca Juniors to two Argentine Primera Division championships and a Copa Libertadores final in two years as their coach, is a proponent of high-tempo, offensive soccer, a style that would seem to fit a team with weapons that include Ibrahimovic, strike partner Ola Kamara and midfielders Romain Alessandrini, Sebastian Lletget and Jonathan dos Santos.
“I definitely think there’s a plan,” said Lletget, who won’t report to the team until next month, following a stint with the U.S. national team. “I think we can do something special.”
That may depend on how well the Galaxy can rebuild a defense that gave up 131 goals over the last two seasons. Te Kloese, who spent much of the last eight years working for the Mexican soccer federation, promised to exploit contacts he and Schelotto have in Latin America. That already appears to be paying off with the team nearing deals with Diego Polenta, a left-footed center back from Uruguay, and 21-year-old Mexican midfielder Uriel Antuna, who is coming on loan from Manchester City.
Both are expected to be in training camp this week, with Polenta joining a back line that includes MLS veterans Dave Romney and Daniel Steres and second-year players Jorgen Skjelvik and Rolf Feltscher. The Galaxy still lack defensive depth, though, so it’s unlikely Polenta will be the only addition this month — which is good news for goalie David Bingham, who faced more shots (186) than any other MLS keeper in 2018.
Bingham, who played every minute last season, gave up 64 goals, 25 more than his previous career high. But he also made a career-high 121 saves, matched a career high with 13 wins and posted eight shutouts.
A deep midfield, meanwhile, was improved with the return of Brazilian Juninho, who played on the Galaxy’s last three MLS Cup teams before being sold to Tijuana of Mexico’s Liga MX following the 2015 season. The Galaxy have won just two playoff games since.
Up front the Galaxy have Ibrahimovic and Kamara, who combined for 36 goals, making them highest scoring duo in MLS last season, while the team’s 66 goals overall were third-most in team history.
Ibrahimovic’s performance earned him a new contract, one the team said will pay him a league-record $7.2 million, nearly five times what he made in 2018.
“I performed being the worst paid. Imagine now how I will perform being the best paid,” he said jokingly.
But Ibrahimovic’s contract leaves Te Kloese with a problem to solve before the Galaxy’s March 2 season opener because it gives the team four designated players, one over the MLS limit. That means he must trade, restructure or buy out the contract of one of their three remaining designated players: Alessandrini, Jonathan dos Santos and forward Gio dos Santos, Jonathan’s brother.
Gio dos Santos was the least effective of the three, making just 10 starts and playing fewer than 825 minutes. He’s also owed the most money — more than $6 million in 2019 — which has frustrated the Galaxy’s effort to trade him.
AEG, the Galaxy’s owner, could simply pay Dos Santos to leave, but that would be a heavy lift given that he’s due a raise from his 2018 salary, which was the fifth-highest in MLS.
Te Kloese is confident he’ll find a solution.
“Things will clear up in a few weeks,” he said.
Galaxy at a glance
Coach: Guillermo Barros Schelotto, first season
2018 record: 13-12-9, seventh in Western Conference
Key losses: Defenders Michael Ciani and Ashley Cole
Key additions: Midfielders Uriel Antuna and Juninho and defender Diego Polenta