Zlatan Ibrahimovic was everywhere Saturday night, the image of his face on the navy blue shirts worn by fans gathered at the gates of StubHub Center two hours before the Galaxy’s scheduled kickoff.
One, two, three … There was no point in counting. It looked as if every other fan had the shirt.
Everyone was here to watch him and the Galaxy knew this, which is why merchandise stands were stocked with Ibrahimovic jerseys and shirts.
When the stadium’s video scoreboard showed the home team walking from the locker room to the field, the camera focused on the 6-foot-5 striker from Sweden as if he were a boxer about to enter a ring for combat. The sight alone elicited cheers from the packed house.
The actual game featured less of Ibrahimovic than anticipated, the 36-year-old rarely touching the ball as the Atlanta United dominated possession in a 2-0 victory over the Galaxy.
Only the game wasn’t a disappointment. Not even close.
The crowd was engaged and the atmopshere was electric. The fans Saturday night were louder than crowds at Chargers games in the same stadium this year — and that includes the season finale against the Raiders.
The soccer wasn’t at the level of the top leagues in the world but was unquestionably entertaining.
Which was a surprise.
Major League Soccer’s reputation as a minor league was well earned. At various points over the league’s 23-year history, knowledgeable soccer fans gave the league a chance and didn’t like what they saw.
In its infancy, the league was downright amateurish, many of the foreigners here indifferent about the competition and looking to cash in one last time on their names before retirement.
There was a period when MLS tried to sell good-but-not-great domestic players such as Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey as stars. And there was David Beckham’s celebrated time here, when it was obvious the Galaxy lacked the weapons to properly showcase the English playmaker’s gifts.
U.S. soccer fans turned their attention elsewhere, including the European Champions League, the English Premier League and the Mexican league.
But as MLS remained in the shadows in its own home, it evidently continued to steadily improve its product into something worth watching. Who knew?
Once down to 10 teams, the league is now at 23 franchises. Fears about rapid expansion diluting talent are reasonable. However, the number of franchises has also permitted the variety in philosophy and action that was visible Saturday.
The Galaxy continue to build around veteran foreign players, with the current group, including Ibrahimovic, Gio dos Santos and Ashley Cole.
Atlanta, on the other hand, has invested heavily in young players from South America. United figures that such players will be more productive and could also be sold to European clubs later in their careers.
The diversity in thought extended beyond player-acquisition and team-building strategies. The teams had styles that were sharp contrasts to one another.
The differing styles is what made this particular game enjoyable, United committing several players forward and dominating possession while the Galaxy remained structurally sound in a 4-4-2 system that featured Ibrahimovic as one of its two forwards.
United attacked, attacked and attacked; the Galaxy absorbed and countered.
One specific counterattack produced a moment of acrobatic magic in the midfield from Ibrahimovic, who in the seventh minute raised his right leg to the height of his head and flicked a ball to a streaking Romain Alessandrini, who in turn leaped and kicked it forward to Ola Kamara. The play was broken up by the United defense.
Thirty seconds later, Kamara attempted a bicycle kick in the penalty box.
With Almiron at the center of its attack, United attacked the Galaxy in waves.
Twenty-two minutes into the game, Almiron launched a shot from 20 yards out that Galaxy goalkeeper David Bingham pushed into the crossbar.
The ball ended up on the right, from where United midfielder Julian Gressel uncorked another blast that struck the crossbar.
The rebound struck Galaxy defender Daniel Steres in the thigh and dropped in the six-yard box, allowing United forward Josef Martinez to pounce and score.
The finish wasn’t pretty, but the buildup was exhilarating.
The goal prompted a role reversal, United playing more conservatively as the Galaxy ventured forward in search of the equalizer. The search continued until after the 90th minute, when Almiron buried a penalty kick to extend United’s lead to 2-0.
The Galaxy lost but the spectators won, treated to a contest that featured eye-catching sequences from the several well-paid players on the field.
This wasn’t the kind of game that was played in this league a decade ago.
Ibrahimovic is nearing the end of his career. He might not score as much as he once did.
But he doesn’t have to score to leave a lasting legacy here. He could do that simply by reintroducing the soccer fans in this country to MLS.