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Soccer

Column: Galaxy superstar Zlatan Ibrahimovic must be appreciated before he’s gone

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, center, is swarmed by teammates after scoring one of his three goals against LAFC on Friday night.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, center, is swarmed by teammates after scoring one of his three goals against LAFC on Friday night.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

When Trevor Orme visited California from the midlands of England this spring, he walked along the beach at Malibu, marveled at the Giant Sequoias and experienced the wonders of Yosemite.

All of which were lovely. But the most remarkable thing the 83-year-old saw here was Zlatan Ibrahimovic scoring a goal.

Perhaps someday they’ll have top-flight soccer in England. But for now when Orme thinks of the sport, his memories aren’t of Old Trafford, White Hart Lane or Stamford Bridge. It’s of a cool evening in Carson and a game-winning goal from a player whose braggadocio sometimes overshadows his brilliance.

“That was the highlight of the holiday,” he said.

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Too bad Orme wasn’t at Dignity Health Sports Park on Friday when Ibrahimovic was at his best, putting on another performance that was somehow both remarkable and routine at the same time. As he has done repeatedly in his 16 months in MLS, Ibrahimovic put the Galaxy on his back and carried them to an improbable victory, this one a 3-2 win over LAFC in the fourth edition of a cross-town rivalry that is already pushing USC-UCLA as the most intense in Southern California.

He had all three of his team’s scores, each goal more important – if not more spectacular -- than the one preceding it. But unlike Yosemite, the ageless redwood forests or the sunset over Paradise Cove, Ibrahimovic has to be appreciated now because he may not be here much longer.

More El Trafico, please. This is a rivalry to enjoy now and to continue enjoying as it ages and adds milestones and memories to Friday’s classic.

In a career in which he has lifted 33 trophies and played for some of the best teams in the world – Juventus, Barcelona, Ajax, both Milans, Manchester United, Paris Saint-Germain – Ibrahimovic has never stayed in one place long. Since 2004 he has spent more than two seasons with the same club just twice.

He’s more than halfway through his second season with the Galaxy and there are hints he may be ready for another move.

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In recent weeks he’s railed against MLS travel, the officiating, the salary cap and the league’s playoff structure. And he’s taken regular digs at the quality of play here, which he has clearly found disappointing.

“Of all the places I’ve been in my life as a professional, this is the most difficult,” he said in a recent interview with ESPN. “MLS is not the level of Europe, to be honest. Before, I played with players either on my level or close to it. Which makes the game connect easier.

“Here I am like a Ferrari among Fiats.”

A Ferrari that is way more expensive and temperamental than a garage full of Fiats. So the Galaxy may not protest too loudly if Ibrahimovic walks away with from his league-record $7.2 million contract, which accounts for more than 40% of the team’s total payroll.

After Friday’s win, the Galaxy had the second-best record in the league yet Ibrahimovic’s frustration with his teammates is often palpable. When they don’t get him the ball, he gestures angrily; during a recent game in Cincinnati, he protested by lying down on the field.

“I had the same issue with the [Swedish] national team,” he told ESPN. “I don’t accept when the ball doesn’t arrive, or arrives too late. I want them to come up to my level.

“All of this makes me slow down a bit. The game here [in America] could be so much faster, so much more tactical, so much more rhythmic.”

Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored his second hat trick in Major League Soccer and the Galaxy beat rival LAFC 3-2 on Friday night in their first meeting of the season.
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It is when Ibrahimovic is playing. Consider the range he displayed in scoring his three goals Friday.

The first was all technique, with Ibrahimovic using his chest to settle a pass from Julian Araujo and his right leg to lift the ball over a defender before volleying a right-footed shot into the net from the edge of the box to tie the game.

The second was mostly strength and desire with Ibrahimovic going over the top of defender Jordan Harvey, who had perfect position, to head in a bending cross from Diego Polenta and give the Galaxy the lead. And the third was all about space, with Ibrahimovic taking a nifty back-heel pass from Favio Alvarez, pushing the ball forward with his first touch, then rifling a left-footed shot inside the far post for what proved to be the winning goal.

It wasn’t the first time Ibrahimovic has simply refused to let his team lose. Three distinctly different goals, each one crucial to keeping the Galaxy unbeaten in El Trafico, the biggest stage on which he has played since coming to MLS.

In the four games with LAFC, Ibrahimovic has six goals. But so does LAFC’s Carlos Vela, the only player to have scored in all four El Traficos – none of which his team won.

Vela’s two scores Friday gave him a league-best 21. Ibrahimovic is second with 16. LAFC leads MLS with 14 wins, the Galaxy is second with 12. Twenty-one games into the season Vela, 30, is the league’s MVP and Ibrahimovic, 37, is the league’s best player.

“Comparing [us] would show a lack of respect towards him,” Vela said in Spanish. “But if we look at the stats and forget age and whatever, I’m better than him right now, that’s the reality.

“He’s been Zlatan and only [Lionel] Messi and Cristiano [Ronaldo] are better than him. The rest of us aren’t in the same league.”

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Vela was speaking figuratively but come next season, he and Ibrahimovic may literally not be in the same league. Vela will still be in MLS but Ibrahimovic? Who knows?

The Galaxy have five regular-season home games and then a likely but uncertain playoff run left in 2019. After that, Ibrahimovic may fade beyond the horizon like the sunset at Paradise Cove, leaving nothing but memories of miracles to remember him by.


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