Zlatan Ibrahimovic has made no secret of his disdain for the MLS playoff system.
After playing two decades in Europe’s major leagues, where the club that finished the long regular season atop the standings was awarded the trophy, the idea the American champion will be crowned in a quick postseason tournament has been difficult to grasp.
“The system is [bunk],” he said this summer. “You just need to win the playoffs, and that’s it. If you come in seventh place, make the playoffs and win, you are champion.”
With LAFC having already clinched the Western Conference title, the playoffs are all the Galaxy have left. And Ibrahimovic seems intent on getting them there, by will or by skill.
Saturday, playing before an announced crowd of 25,482 at Dignity Health Sports Park, Ibrahimovic used a little of both, scoring the opening goal and assisting on Uriel Antuna’s game-winner in a 2-1 victory over the Montreal Impact.
With the win, the Galaxy (15-13-3) moved to third in the tight conference standings where seven teams, fighting for the final six postseason spots, are separated by just seven points.
“The result was very good because it gave us three points,” coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. “We needed to win today.”
But the Galaxy and Ibrahimovic, who won back-to-back games for the first time since May, have been more than just good the last two weeks. They’ve also been fortuitous and that combination has fueled a rapid rise up the standings.
Neither Seattle, Dallas nor Portland, the three playoff contenders who played midweek games, won. Nor did Real Salt Lake or San Jose, the teams bracketing the Galaxy in the standings who played earlier Saturday.
And when the Galaxy took the field for their own game a couple of hours later, they were met by a Montreal team missing three starters — including midfielder Ignacio Piatti and forward Maxi Urruti, its two more experienced outfield players.
It was a trifecta of good fortune for a team fighting to end a two-year playoff drought. If the stars have aligned for the Galaxy, though, none has shown brighter than Ibrahimovic — who also caught a break on his goal when a shot from Jonathan dos Santos from outside the penalty area struck Ibrahimovic on his left thigh and dropped to his feet.
Ibrahimovic then spun to his right and powered a right-footed shot past Montreal’s Evan Bush, spoiling an otherwise stellar night for the keeper, who made a season-high 10 saves.
The Impact argued for both an offside call and a handball on Ibrahimovic but after a short replay review, referee Kevin Stott let the goal stand, giving Ibrahimovic 27 on the season and 11 in his last seven games. That pushed the Galaxy captain into the thick of the league scoring race, where he trails only LAFC’s Carlos Vela, who has 29 goals.
And with the Galaxy losing just one of the last eight games in which Ibrahimovic has scored, he’s now a favorite for league MVP honors as well.
“It’s more for the fans or the media than for me,” Schelotto, who has compared Ibrahimovic favorably to Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, said of the prize. “I know what kind of player he is. We are enjoying him in the Galaxy and MLS.”
Montreal pulled that goal back three minutes into the second half when Lassi Lappalainen headed in a perfect pass from Saphir Taider.