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Newsletter: Soccer! Zlatan Ibrahimovic belongs in another league

Portland Timbers v Los Angeles Galaxy
Zlatan Ibrahimovic
(Katharine Lotze / Getty Images)

Hello and welcome to this week’s edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, the Times’ soccer writer. And we’ll start where we often do, with MLS, since Southern California is home to the league’s two best teams.

It was a tough weekend for the Galaxy and LAFC, with the former losing for the first time in nearly two months while the latter saw its home winning streak end at five games in a scoreless draw. And there’s a lot to chew on behind those results.

In the Galaxy camp, it’s becomingly increasingly obvious MLS is simply too easy for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Remember the big kid on your Little League team? The kid who was shaving at 12, pitching a no-hitter every time he stepped on the mound and homering every at-bat?

That’s Zlatan.

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Although the Galaxy (7-2-1) saw their seven-game unbeaten streak snapped in Saturday’s 3-2 loss to the New York Red Bulls, it was hardly the captain’s fault since Ibrahimovic had a hand in both goals, assisting Uriel Antuna on the first and scoring the second on his own. That gives him nine goals and two assists in eight games; the team has scored just six goals this season that Ibrahimovic hasn’t played a part in.

He hardly found that worth celebrating though.

“We lost the game,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what I did.”

In 35 career MLS games, Ibrahimovic has 31 goals and 12 assists. Over the last two seasons only Atlanta’s Josef Martinez, with 35 goals (in 42 games), has more. And only three players in history have enjoyed a more prolific start to their MLS careers — none of them 37-year-olds playing on a surgically repaired knee.

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“You know, when he has the ball, he’s really good. He makes a difference,” said Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, proving he has a firm grasp on the obvious.

It’s hard to imagine where the Galaxy would be without Ibrahimovic. He missed two games earlier this season with an Achilles tendon strain and the Galaxy were shut out in one of them, their only loss of the season before Saturday.

In the last three games Ibrahimovic has missed over the past two seasons, the Galaxy failed to score in two of them. But in the last 16 games he’s started, the Galaxy scored 33 times, with Ibrahimovic getting 16 of them and assisting on five others, giving him a part in 63.6% of the team’s offense over that period.

It would be hard to imagine another player meaning as much to a team’s production as Ibrahimovic means to the Galaxy’s.

And while that makes the game planning for opponents obvious — stop Ibrahimovic and you stop the Galaxy — no team has managed to figure out how to do it. That makes Ibrahimovic’s MLS-record $7.2-million salary a bargain.

“I never lost the passion for what I do,” he said. “I see many players out there that get big contracts, they lose their [sense of] reality when they go on social media and all that, and then they lose the passion for what they do. Me, I never lost that.

“I’m enjoying it. Most importantly, I feel good physically and as long as I feel good, I can’t worry about what I do on the field. I am confident and I just need to stay physically good and enjoy the game.”

Ibrahimovic has gone the distance in every game he’s played this season, but that stamina is about to be tested. After finishing a stretch that saw them play three games in 10 days, the Galaxy started on another, with the game against the Red Bulls marking the first of three in eight days. As a result expect Schelotto to rest some players — possibly including Ibrahimovic — Wednesday in Columbus.

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The Galaxy were on the verge of adding an offensive reinforcement Tuesday morning, moving closer to signing versatile Argentine attacker Favio Alvarez before the league’s primary transfer window closed. Alvarez, 26, who is well known to Schelotto, a former Argentine, had two goals in 14 games for Atletico Tucuman this season.

Alvarez, if he comes, will reportedly come on a season-long loan with an option to buy. Financial terms of the proposed deal were not released but the signing was to be financed with TAM, meaning the contract and acquisition costs exceed the maximum MLS salary budget charge of $530,000.

The only player who has scored more goals than Ibrahimovic this season is LAFC captain Carlos Vela, who has 11 goals in as many games. But he and his team have both hit the skids lately, with last Saturday’s scoreless draw with the Chicago Fire marking the second time in four games LAFC (7-1-3) has failed to score.

More troubling is the fact opponents finally seem to have figured out how to contain the league’s most potent offense, one that scored 21 times in its first seven games of the season but has just one goal in its last 209 minutes.

“One of the hardest things in football when a team is organized and deep, is finding the right ways to break them down,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said.

LAFC’s last two opponents, the Seattle Sounders and the Fire, both elected to play as many as nine men behind the ball, ceding possession and absorbing pressure — both gave up 21 shots — apparently content to escape with a draw.

The Fire played with two deep lines of four defenders each, choking LAFC’s passing lanes. Seattle, down a man for most of the game, did much the same thing a week earlier.

“Teams come in and they change their whole style of play to combat ours,” defender Jordan Harvey said. “At times we’ve broken teams down.”

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And at others — last Saturday, for instance — they didn’t.

“We’re just not getting the breaks that sometimes we get,” said forward Christian Ramirez, who has taken a combined six shots in the last two games and hasn’t scored. “If we score one goal in that first half [Saturday] I think it’s a three- or four-goal game. That’s been the difference, just a couple of chances here and there.

“We’re still playing our football and it’s a long season. We know there’s going to be stretches where it’s not always going to be a 4-0 game but we just have to continue to play our style and believe in it and it will come.”

There are signs that frustration is building, though. LAFC’s post-game news conferences generally feature Bradley and as many as four players and can continue for more than an hour after a home game. Saturday’s featured just two players who entertained a half-dozen questions.

Among those who didn’t take questions for the first time in recent memory was Vela.

The good news? LAFC saw forward Adama Diomande make his first appearance in a month, playing the final 15 minutes, while designated player Andre Horta, who has taken part in one game this season, was back among the 18.

USA! USA!

Matt Reis, who played 15 seasons in MLS before becoming a goalkeeper coach for the Galaxy and U.S. national team, believes U.S. keepers give up fewer dangerous rebounds because Americans are more comfortable than Europeans at catching the ball, having grown up playing basketball, football and baseball.

Galaxy goalie David Bingham agrees but says that’s not the only difference.

“There’s definitely a different style,” said Bingham, whose three shutouts and four wins in April led him to be nominated for MLS player of the month. “Catching is one. Coming off the line for crosses is the main one. We’re substantially better. European goalies [stay] on the line, they don’t come out for anything.”

The U.S. style of play in goal may be one reason why the first Americans to truly stand out in Europe were all goalies. Brad Friedel played in nearly 600 games for four EPL teams between 1997 and 2014, for example, and Tim Howard played in more than 500 for Manchester United and Everton. But style will only get you so far, said Bingham, who gave up a season-high three goals in the loss to the Red Bulls.

“At the end of the day it’s the work you see us putting in here,” he said. “Are we perfect? No, we’re not perfect. And we drop balls too.

“But I’ll sit out here for 20, 30 minutes and catch 50 to 100 balls to get better at it. Whereas some other goalies don’t put in that work.”

Girl power

Kristine Lilly, a star on the title-winning 1999 Women’s World Cup team, is trying to bring a NWSL expansion team to Connecticut and she said last week that if she is successful, it could have an impact on Mia Hamm’s efforts to bring a team to Southern California.

“I would think so,” said Lilly, part of a group that submitted a bid with the league seeking to place a women’s team just outside Hartford. “With the growth of the league and the game and the attention that the women’s game is getting, we’re always looking to grow.”

Lilly’s group, which includes Mohegan Sun Sports, owner of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun and the New England Black Wolves of the National Lacrosse League, expects to learn this month if its bid will be approved. The group is hopeful of beginning play in the NWSL next year.

Hamm, Lilly’s teammate on that 1999 team and a co-owner of the Los Angeles Football Club of MLS, said last month that bringing an NWSL team to Southern California was “a top priority” for LAFC. “When we make that commitment,” she continued, “we want to make sure we can go all-in and do it right, just like we’ve done with the men’s team.”

Lilly said that time may be drawing near. The Women’s World Cup kicks off next month in France and the NWSL is obviously hoping the tournament will provide a significant bump to the league.

“There’s been interest [from] more groups to have a team,” Lilly said. “With the growth of the league and the game and the attention that the women’s game is getting, we’re always looking to grow.”

The NWSL declined to discuss either the Lilly or Hamm proposals, issuing an anonymous no comment by email. But there’s no doubt the league has become an important part of the soccer landscape, especially in terms of its contribution toward building the national team, with all 23 women selected to the U.S. Women’s World Cup team last week coming off NWSL rosters.

“The NWSL — the platform in and of itself — and the environment, is absolutely necessary for us to be able to compete for world championships and Olympics,” coach Jill Ellis said. “Every top team now in the world has a domestic league that’s thriving. That’s critical. The two go hand in hand for me.

“I can’t say enough in terms of the importance of having a strong domestic league.”

The approach of the Women’s World Cup is also shining a bright spotlight on past members of the U.S. national team, with a spate of book and film projects beginning to flood the market.

Argent Pictures is producing a film on former national team goalkeeper Hope Solo; journalist Caitlin Murray’s book “The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women who Changed Soccer” was released last month, a week ahead of Abby Wambach’s empowering “Wolfpack: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power and Change the Game.” Now comes “Powerhouse: 13 Teamwork Tactics That Build Excellence and Unrivaled Success,” co-written by Lilly.

The 13 comes from the uniform number Lilly wore in her 354 national team appearances, the most by any player, male or female, in soccer history.

“When I made the national team I got stuck with it,” said Lilly, who was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2014. “So 13 is close to my heart.”

The tips she offers stress collaborative work, goal-setting and the importance of communication and are backed by contributions from former coaches and teammates.

“The national team was so successful because it wasn’t just about one person,” Lilly said. “Obviously we all have to excel individually but it was for the collective of the team. When I think about things I do, I’m successful because of what I learned with this team and how you need people together to work, to collaborate, to push each other to be successful.

“And it is always about the team.”

The growth of women’s soccer and the desire that Lilly and so many of her teammates have to speak out and be heard is not a coincidence, she believes, especially since it comes at a time when a record number of women are serving in Congress.

“Everything’s changed fundamentally,” he said. “I think it’s time. Pay people for what they’re doing not because one’s a male and one’s a female. Pay them for their work. For me it’s just doing what’s right and part of that is empowering women.

“I know these women are using the platform and I respect them. Abby’s voice is incredible. Brianna [Scurry], motivational speaking. You’ve got Julie Foudy [at] ESPN covering stories on different things. You’ve got Mia, an owner, continually being an ambassador for the game. And then Alex Morgan is the new face of women’s soccer, showing us that women can be part of this business world and be marketable and do all these wonderful things.”

The Wright stuff

Chris Wright spent 26 years with the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves, a time when the league experienced unparalleled growth under commissioners David Stern and Adam Silver. Now Wright, CEO of soccer’s Minnesota United, says MLS commissioner Don Garber deserves to be mentioned in the same breath.

Since taking the reins of the league 20 years ago, Garber first helped stave off insolvency, then guided MLS through a wave of expansion that has taken it from 10 teams in 2004 to 24 today. Three more teams — Cincinnati, Nashville and Miami — will begin play by 2021 with Sacramento and St. Louis likely to join a year later.

“This sport is growing exponentially, so quickly that it really is turning a tremendous number of heads,” Wright told me as we chatted in a suite at Allianz Field, Minnesota United’s handsome new home in St. Paul. “Don Garber has done a masterful job in getting this league to where it is today. And now he’s beginning to plan the future of this league.”

Wright gave Garber special credit for resolving a delicate situation in Columbus where the owners of the Crew, an original league member, announced their intention to move to Austin, Texas. Fans protested and the city filed a lawsuit before the Haslam family, owner of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, stepped in and bought the team with Garber offering Anthony Precourt, the Crew’s former owners, an expansion franchise in Austin instead.

“For him to save Columbus, bring in the Haslams from the NFL and basically take over Columbus the way that they have, then allow a family that really does want to stay in this game to go to Austin and maneuver that situation to the point that what happened, happened. That’s masterful,” he said, repeating a favorite superlative.

“But also to get a number of cities passionately, feverishly chasing MLS expansion the way that it is happening right now is incredible.”

Garber announced last month that the league will be growing to at least 30 teams with bids by Sacramento and St. Louis to join MLS — paying expansion fees of $200 million for that honor — expected to be approved this summer. That leaves about a half-dozen markets — including Las Vegas, Detroit and Charlotte — in the running for the 30th spot.

Each of those teams will build a new soccer-specific stadium, adding to the 17 MLS venues already constructed during Garber’s reign.

“When you begin to look at the number of new stadiums that have been built already, and then the ones that are coming, there is no other league in the world that is developing brand-new facilities for this beautiful game the way that this league is right now,” said Wright, whose team’s $200-million palace is the league’s newest. “It’s just amazing to be part of that.”

Glory, glory Man United

A league title and a Champions League berth are up for grabs Sunday on the final day of play in the English Premier League, making for an interesting — if early — day of soccer with all 10 games kicking off at 7 a.m. Pacific, each airing on the NBC family of networks.

That will be followed by a one-hour version of “The Impossible Dream,” a celebration of the 20-year anniversary of Manchester United’s record-setting 1998-99 season, when it won the three most prestigious club trophies an EPL team can win — the Premier League, the FA Cup, and the Champions League titles — in a 10-day span.

The film will air on NBC at 11 a.m. Pacific, after a wrap-up of the day’s action. To help with the movie, Manchester United granted NBC Sports access to its entire archive, which includes more than 125 hours of historic footage. The filmmakers also conducted dozens of interviews with the likes of United coach Alex Ferguson and former players David Beckham, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, Andrew Cole, Peter Schmeichel, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Phil Neville.

“That was the most special time in my career,” said Beckham, who played 11 seasons in Manchester before coming to MLS and the Galaxy in 2007.

NBCSN will air the full two-hour version of the movie on May 26, the anniversary of United’s 2-1 Champions League final win over Bayern Munich on two stoppage-time goals. The movie will also stream on NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and on MUTV globally.

Fans can download & subscribe via the MUTV App to watch the movie on demand.

Podcast

Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast.

Until next time

Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter: @kbaxter11.


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