Trailing by two goals with less than 20 minutes to play Saturday, the Galaxy were circling the drain when the sellout crowd at StubHub Center began chanting the name of the team’s newest player.
So Zlatan Ibrahimovic stripped off his warmups, strode toward the midfield stripe and was subbed into the game.
“The fans wanted Zlatan,” Ibrahimovic said. “And I gave them Zlatan.”
What happened next defied description, if not reality.
The Galaxy, who had scored three goals in their first three games without Ibrahimovic, scored three in the 20 minutes he was on the field to rally past the Los Angeles Football Club 4-3. And Ibrahimovic had two of them, the first an improbable score-tying 40-yard volley and the second a game-winning header 10 seconds into stoppage time.
“Today Zlatan was doing Zlatan things,” Galaxy striker Ola Kamara said. “I’m never surprised by Zlatan.”
Ibrahimovic’s entrance was the most-hyped MLS debut in more than a decade — and it exceeded expectations.
“Oh my God, I’m still at loss for words,” said midfielder Sebastian Lletget, who scored the Galaxy’s first goal, then came to the sidelines when Ibrahimovic went in. “I don’t even know what just happened.”
It took a three-year courtship between the Galaxy and Ibrahimovic to bring the player to Southern California. And he didn’t arrive until late Thursday, giving him time for only one brief training session before Saturday’s inner-city rivalry with the Galaxy’s noisy, upstart neighbors from up the Harbor Freeway.
As a result, he started the game on the bench, where he immediately began wondering if he had made a mistake.
“It was hot. Trust me,” he said. “After 10 minutes I was asking for some cream. I was burning. “
And as he was baking he watched LAFC (2-1) run roughshod over a Galaxy team without all three of its designated players — Romain Alessandrini and brothers Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos — who have hamstring injuries.
So while the Galaxy didn’t put a shot on goal in the first 45 minutes, LAFC’s Carlos Vela put two in the net. The lead swelled to 3-0 three minutes after the break when Marcos Urena bounced a ball off the left foot of Galaxy defender Daniel Steres and into the goal.
“Things seemed to be going our way,” coach Bob Bradley said.
Even when Lletget pulled one of those goals back, in the 61st minute, ending a scoreless streak for the Galaxy at 181 minutes, it appeared more a murmur of protest than the start of a comeback. But then Chris Pontius scored on a diving header less than two minutes after Ibrahimovic came on and the game changed.
Ibrahimovic took over.
“Obviously, he came in and rewarded us.” coach Sigi Schmid said.
Ibrahimovic, 36, hadn’t played since going 45 minutes for Manchester United more than three months ago and looked winded and awkward on his first couple of touches. So the third time he got the ball he dispensed with dribbling and shot from distance, collecting a loose ball on a big bounce and driving a hard shot over goalkeeper Tyler Miller to tie the score in the 77th minute.
Caught up in the moment, Ibrahimovic ripped his jersey off and danced the 40 yards to the goal line where he was engulfed by his teammates, earning a yellow card for excessive celebration.
“I felt I played 40 games for my 20 minutes,” Ibrahimovic said. “I did the first sprint and I was starting to breathe [hard] immediately. So I said this time I shoot, I don’t run with the ball.”
The goal not only evened the score but it also extended a remarkable streak for Ibrahimovic, who has scored in his first appearance not only in MLS but in Serie A, La Liga, Ligue 1, the Premier League and the Champions League.
He wasn’t done this time though. Ten seconds into stoppage time, he split two defenders and beat Miller to an Ashley Cole cross, heading in the winning goal.
“It was difficult to describe,” he said. “I was getting the — how do you say? — the chicken skin, goose bumps, from the third goal we scored. The fourth was even more crazy because you are winning the game.
“After that I was like ‘just stop the game now’.”