LAFC vs. Galaxy and Carlos Vela vs. Zlatan Ibrahimovic, this time in the MLS playoffs
One is as quiet as a summer breeze; the other as full of ego and testosterone as a Donald Trump rally.
One has the physique of an accountant; the other the size and strength of a tight end.
Yet for all that distinguishes LAFC’s Carlos Vela from the Galaxy’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, there is one big thing they have in common: Both are the captains and leaders of cross-town rivals that will meet in Thursday’s much-anticipated MLS Western Conference semifinal at Banc of California Stadium.
“Obviously they’re both world-class players,” LAFC defender Steven Beitashour said. “And you’ve seen what they’ve done this season. They’re a major part to both their teams’ successes.”
Together they combined for 64 goals -- Vela with a league-record 34 and Ibrahimovic with a franchise-best 30. LAFC was the only team to score more than 64 goals this season.
Never before has an MLS game, much less a playoff game, featured two 30-goal scorers.
They made their U.S. debuts just weeks apart last season and while the record books show Vela has had the best season in MLS history, Ibrahimovic has arguably been the most dominant player ever. And they’ve gone about it in different ways -- Vela with the skill and deception of a magician and Ibrahimovic with the strength and irrepressibility of a rampaging rhino – that reflect both their own personalities and the teams for which they play.
“Every day Carlos comes in here he’s got a smile, he’s got an easy way with his teammates,” LAFC coach Bob Bradley said Wednesday. “He’s encouraging with his teammates.”
From the team’s first practice, Bradley pushed Vela not to be content with simply being the best player on his team or in his league but to be the best player possible. Vela struggled with that last year but began this season by quietly saying his goal was to become the league’s MVP.
“Every year I start with the same mentality: to try to score a lot of goals, win every game, try to be the best,” he said this summer. “This time everything is going in the good way. I’m doing the things I dreamed of.”
To win the award, he knew his team would have to win games and it has, going 21-4-9 to finish the regular season with a league-record 72 points. Vela deserves credit for that too, setting a tone in the locker room by eschewing perks like first-class upgrades on team flights in favor of a middle seat in the last row where he can play cards with his teammates.
LAFC reflects that mind-set on the field with an unselfish, if unrelenting, playing style in which Vela is as likely to set up a teammate for a goal -– his 15 assists tied for third in the league -– as he is to score himself.
“There’s no bias between any players,” Beitashour said. “I don’t care if you’re Carlos or you’re a rookie. Everybody is treated with high expectation. And that’s how you get something this special.”
If Vela had to be coaxed into believing in himself, that wasn’t a problem for Ibrahimovic, who has compared himself to God, pledged to break every MLS record and christened himself the best player in league history.
He might be right on that last one.
“You should enjoy him,” Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath said after Sunday’s playoff loss to the Galaxy (16-15-3). “It’s a bit like Frank Sinatra. He’ll be dead before we know how good he is.”
The Galaxy defeat Minnesota 2-1 in playoff opener when Sebatian Lletget and Jonathan dos Santos score in second half. They’ll face LAFC on Thursday.
Ibrahimovic, 38, is doing his best to make that happen before giving St. Peter the pleasure of shaking his hand. He is a Ferrari in a league full of Fiats, he said earlier this year, and he is not content to share. When the ball comes into the attacking third, if Ibrahimovic doesn’t get it, he often gestures wildly and angrily at the teammate who ignored him.
As a result, Ibrahimovic -– who always flies in first class -- has scored more than half his team’s goals and taken more shots on target than the next five Galaxy players combined. A loss Thursday could mark his last game in MLS, however, while a win would take him a step closer to his first MLS Cup.
But regardless of the outcome, Ibrahimovic said the game won’t determine which team, which player or which style is better.
“Please, do not offend me,” he said this summer after being compared to Vela. “I need to prove nothing. To compare him with me, that was the biggest mistake.”
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