Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s debut was the most dramatic in MLS history, with the Swedish superstar coming off the bench to score the tying and winning goals for the Galaxy in their first cross-town derby with LAFC.
But if the lion came into the league with a roar last season, he could go out with a whimper Sunday when the Galaxy open the MLS playoffs on the road against Minnesota United.
Ibrahimovic, whose contract expires at the end of the year, has been coy about his future, leading to speculation that a loss Sunday would mark his last game in MLS.
“Could be,” he said after a training session last week. “I have a contract until 31 December. So until then there is no other thought.”
Asked what would influence his decision, Ibrahimovic heaved a long sigh and stared straight ahead before answering.
“A lot of things,” he said. “But … it’s not the moment to speak about this.”
When Ibrahimovic re-signed with the Galaxy last winter, he promised he would “break every record in the MLS.” Turns out he broke just one, with his $7.2-million contract making him the league’s highest-paid player.
But he did manage to keep the Galaxy relevant at a time when LAFC and its captain, Carlos Vela, were putting together the best regular season in league history just 12 miles up the freeway. Ibrahimovic, an MVP favorite, scored a franchise-best 30 goals — nine of them game-winners — to lead the Galaxy to the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
In the 20 games in which he scored, the Galaxy were 13-5-2; when he didn’t score, the team was 3-10-1. For good measure he also has the best-selling jersey in MLS for the second straight season.
“He’s Zlatan,” coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said with a shrug. “He [led] the way. He’s very competitive. Even now at 38 he wants to win.”
And he’s been at his best when it mattered most, scoring at least once in each of the Galaxy’s last five games and getting 14 goals in the last 10.
But Ibrahimovic has rarely stayed in one place long, changing leagues eight times in 20 years and spending as many as three consecutive seasons with the same team just three times.
He’s ending his second season with the Galaxy and has reportedly received numerous offers to return to Europe. General manager Dennis te Kloese, who had a 45-minute, closed-door meeting with Ibrahimovic last month, said he won’t address the possibility of a contract extension until the playoffs are over.
That could come soon rather than later.
Minnesota (15-11-8), playing in the postseason for the first time, lost only once at home this season while its back line, led by MLS defender of the year Ike Opara, allowed just 43 goals. The Galaxy (16-15-3), conversely, lost 10 times on the road, second-most of any playoff team.
But their 58 goals trail only two teams and the Galaxy have never lost to Minnesota, going 4-0-2 lifetime and playing to a scoreless draw in the teams’ only other meeting at Allianz Field. Sunday’s winner will advance to the Western Conference semifinal Thursday against top-seeded LAFC, which had a first-round bye.
Only three players – defenders Daniel Steres and Dave Romney and midfielder Sebastian Lletget – remain from the Galaxy’s last playoff run in 2016, one which ended in a penalty-kick loss to Colorado in a two-leg conference semifinal.
“That group had an enormous amount of veterans,” Romney said. “This time around we don’t really have many guys who have an MLS playoff game.”
Ibrahimovic and midfielder Jonathan dos Santos will be among those making their postseason debuts Sunday.
“Finally,” Dos Santos said in Spanish. “They tell me the playoff atmosphere is totally different than the regular season. I want to enjoy it and I hope it ends with a title.”
That’s possible. But what seems almost certain is that it will end in Ibrahimovic’s departure – something the Galaxy would like to stave off for as long as possible.
“The future of the Galaxy or the future of Zlatan, it’s very clear,” Schelotto said. “You can imagine.”