Column: Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s possible final act for Galaxy is neither classy nor satisfying
As LAFC and Galaxy players exchanged handshakes and embraces in the penalty box, a solitary figure marched in the opposite direction toward the visiting locker room.
It was Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Before disappearing into the bowels of Banc of California Stadium, Ibrahimovic clutched his genitals and glared into the stands.
With a 5-3 defeat to LAFC in their single-elimination playoff game on Thursday night, the Galaxy’s season was over. Ibrahimovic’s time in Major League Soccer might have come to an end too.
“It’s not about the money,” Ibrahimovic said. “We’ll see what happens.”
A window that opened to immense possibilities could have closed with the most vulgar of gestures and questions about what could have been.
Because as well as Ibrahimovic played in his two seasons here, as many special moments he created, there’s a sinking feeling the Galaxy failed to maximize his ability as a striker and entertainer.
Carlos Vela and Adama Diomande each score twice as LAFC ends the Galaxy’s season in a 5-3 victory in the MLS Cup Western Conference semifinals.
The team’s mediocrity limited his exposure. Its failures minimized his individual achievements.
Take the Galaxy’s first loss to LAFC on Thursday.
The better team won, but only after nearly giving away the game.
Typically a team that likes to control the ball, LAFC ceded possession to the Galaxy. LAFC gifted the Galaxy a couple of goals. LAFC allowed the Galaxy to gain momentum.
And the Galaxy still lost.
The Galaxy never really had a chance, not even after Ibrahimovic pounced on a mistake by LAFC’s defenders and fired a shot through goalkeeper Tyler Miller’s legs to level the score in the 55th minute 2-2.
LAFC was too talented. It was too deep. And the Galaxy were too flawed.
The Galaxy had a world-class striker in the 38-year-old Ibrahimovic.
It had a promising young attacker in Cristian Pavon. It had a talented midfielder in Jonathan dos Santos. And it didn’t have much else.
The team’s management ultimately failed to place the right players around Ibrahimovic.
The situation was understandable last year, as Ibrahimovic didn’t join the Galaxy until after the season started.
But once Ibrahimovic re-signed with the Galaxy after his 22-goal maiden campaign, the team should have built around him. Inexcusably, it didn’t.
President Chris Klein, who championed Ibrahimovic’s signing and returned, appeared to have one idea. General manager Dennis te Klose and coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto seemed to have another.
Listed at 6 feet 5 and 209 pounds, Ibrahimovic remains a dominant physical presence in this league. But the Galaxy didn’t have qualitywide players capable of playing the ball into him.
The back line was particularly troublesome. The lack of outside backs forced Schelotto to start four center backs against LAFC.
This was a problem.
Concerned the Galaxy could play long balls into Ibrahimovic, LAFC abandoned its trademark high press and sat back.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic has been the driving force behind the Galaxy’s push to make the playoffs. Here are his top five goals so far this season.
“As we step up to press, they play off of second balls,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley explained.
So LAFC instead absorbed pressure, which was easier to do because the Galaxy didn’t have outside backs capable of overlapping and joining the attack.
Still, Bradley acknowledged, “We probably allowed them a little too much.”
LAFC, which prides itself on holding the ball, had possession only 39% of the time in the first half. This created some nervous moments for LAFC in the first 15 minutes.
The flip side of that was that LAFC was able to strike on the counter.
LAFC striker Carlos Vela scored in the 16th minute and again in the 40th to move Bradley’s team in front 2-0.
But in a moment of carelessness, LAFC allowed Dos Santos to run with the ball into its third of the field and play the ball to Ibrahimovic, who moved it on to Pavon. The attacker from Argentina slanted the ball past Miller to close the gap to 2-1.
Ibrahimovic tied the score 2-2 in the second half.
From there, it was all LAFC. And it was over for the other side. The Galaxy and Ibrahimovic couldn’t respond.
In Ibrahimovic, the Galaxy had more than a legendary player. It had a transcendent personality.
“If I don’t play in MLS, what will you talk about then?” he joked after the loss Thursday.
That combination of ability and humor vaulted the Galaxy into the spotlight after his stunning debut, when he came off the bench to score twice in a comeback victory over LAFC.
The performance included a 45-yard goal that was replayed over and over on highlight shows. Ibrahimovic made talk-show appearances.
He’s never scaled those heights again. The Galaxy didn’t let him. And now, it’s over.
All about the beautiful game
Go inside the L.A. pro soccer scene and beyond in Kevin Baxter's weekly newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.