Galaxy owner Philip Anschutz was showing his grandson around Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson on Friday when he stopped his six-passenger golf cart in front of a gated practice field and the man whose name is on the MLS Cup stepped inside to watch the team train.
Anschutz was about the only person to pass through the gate that morning to not ask about the status of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the hobbled superstar he is paying a league-record $7.2 million this season. That might have been a good thing since the answer everyone else got was “I don’t know.”
Ibrahimovic hasn’t played since straining his left Achilles’ tendon during the Galaxy’s season opener March 2. He hadn’t even been on a field until last Tuesday. So his availability for Sunday’s home game with the Portland Timbers remained uncertain after the team’s final full practice of the week.
“You have to wait and see,” Ibrahimovic said.
Coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto was uncertain about both Ibrahimovic and midfielder Romain Alessandrini, who has also been out since the opener because of a sore hamstring.
“We’ll talk with the doctor,” he said.
By Saturday afternoon, the prognosis for both players had improved and it’s likely they will be available for Sunday’s game. If Ibrahimovic does play, he’s already proved he won’t need much time to make an impact.
Sunday’s game comes on the one-year anniversary of his MLS debut, when he scored twice in 19 minutes off the bench to lead the Galaxy to a 4-3 win over LAFC in the teams’ first cross-town derby. The first goal came on an improbable 40-yard volley after Ibrahimovic, playing for the first time in months, convinced himself he wasn’t fit enough to dribble and decided to shoot instead.
“I showed them something they had never seen before. So I need 20 minutes,” Ibrahimovic recalled Friday. “I feel good. It’s all about how long you can keep it. That I don’t know. That you find out when you’re playing.”
Ibrahimovic, who practiced Friday with a knee-high compression sock over his left calf, did strength work during his 24 days away from the field and said he tried to “reach the limit all the time” to keep as fit as possible.
“The training today was awesome,” said Lletget, who returned for the second game of the season but hadn’t practiced full speed with Ibrahimovic and Alessandrini until Friday. “I think the chemistry is already there.”
A full roster will force Schelotto to decide what style to play against winless Portland (0-2-1), an MLS Cup finalist a year ago.
In the Galaxy’s last game, against Minnesota United, Uriel Antuna started in the middle of a three-man front line and the Galaxy pressed all night. The result was a 3-2 win in what may have been the team’s best performance in two seasons.
Ibrahimovic’s return would likely force Antuna back to a wing and alter the way the team plays.
“He’s more technical than physical,” Schelotto said of Ibrahimovic. “But the most important thing is to manage the ball well. With Antuna, it’s very fast and it’s moving all the time. Maybe you can see him better in that position.
“But the talent for Ibra is [greater].”