LA Galaxy's move for Ibrahimovic a no-brainer, but is he up for the challenge?
In most cases, the signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic by the LA Galaxy would result in unabashed euphoria in MLS circles. The Swede has long been viewed as the ideal foreign import, one who could move the needle in all manner of ways, from the field to the stands and beyond.
But given the news that Ibrahimovic has actually signed with the Galaxy, it's difficult to shake the feeling that this is an acquisition that has come 11 months too late.
To be clear, this was a move MLS and the Galaxy had to make. Sure, the signing will no doubt revive the view that MLS is nothing more than a retirement league. But Ibrahimovic is one of a few players for whom MLS should move regardless of any potential blowback. And given the steep discount it is getting in terms of Ibrahimovic's contract, MLS would have been foolish to walk away.
ESPN FC has confirmed an SI.com report that the deal runs for two years and a total of $3 million. In terms of being incentive-laden, a source with direct knowledge of the deal confirmed that it is comparable to deals for other MLS players in that pay range. As ESPN FC first reported back in January, the salary structure will allow Ibrahimovic to sign with the help of Targeted Allocation Money instead of as a designated player.
But the question remains as to what version of Ibrahimovic the Galaxy is getting. Is he the physical force who dominated the top levels of the game for well over a decade? Or is LA getting a washed-up 36-year-old forward who isn't even a year removed from a devastating knee injury, and can no longer rely on his once-prodigious physical gifts?
If healthy, Ibrahimovic would likely dominate; perhaps to an even greater extent than Didier Drogba did when he joined the Montreal Impact for the back half of the 2015 season, scoring 11 goals in 11 appearances. But it's a sizable "if." The fact that Ibrahimovic suffered a setback in December certainly gives one pause as to how much he has left to give. There is a chance that Ibrahimovic simply needs more time to recover. Cruciate ligament injuries like the kind he sustained often result in a player not getting back to full strength until a year has passed. But the impression at present is that he isn't the player he once was.
The deal sees the Galaxy continue their return to their big-name-signing roots. This approach was interrupted to a degree last year when the club unwisely decided to promote more academy and reserve-team products and finished in last place, though it signed Mexico international Jonathan dos Santos midway through the season. Since then, the Galaxy have revamped their midfield, though the back line is still unproven, hinting that the money used to bring in Ibrahimovic might have been better spent elsewhere.
That the Galaxy haven't is due to another motivation for making a big splash, that being the arrival of expansion side LAFC. The new neighbor has added some high-profile signings such as Mexico international Carlos Vela, and is off to a sparkling start in the league, having won its first two games. The Battle for LA is now well and truly on, with the two teams set to meet for the first time on March 31.
As is so often the case, the success or failure of the move will come down to Ibrahimovic's attitude. His work ethic is not in question, and with an outside shot at a spot on Sweden's World Cup roster -- despite him being retired from international football -- it stands to reason that Ibrahimovic will be highly motivated to do and say all the right things in the beginning. It is after the Sweden roster is announced -- with Ibrahimovic or without him -- that the real test will come.
Ibrahimovic's reputation is one of being notoriously hard on teammates. What will be his reaction when he sees the Galaxy's collection of midfielders alongside him instead of Paul Pogba? If his frustration at playing with less-talented teammates gets the best of him, the situation could quickly turn toxic.
That will amount to a managerial challenge for Galaxy boss Sigi Schmid. Schmid certainly has experience managing well-known players, be it Guillermo Barros Schelotto, Freddie Ljungberg or Obafemi Martins, but Ibrahimovic is at a completely different level. Schmid admitted that upon getting fired from the Seattle Sounders in 2016, his relationship with star forward Clint Dempsey "wasn't as productive as it needed to be." Keeping Ibrahimovic onside will require a deft hand, and every bit of Schmid's experience.
Of course, looked at another way, an uncensored Ibrahimovic casting a spotlight on the warts of the Galaxy and MLS might actually do more to move the needle, especially in an oversaturated sports market like Los Angeles. But even that has its limits. The challenge in these situations is avoiding the circus effect, whereby a prospective fan sees Ibrahimovic once and that's enough. The way to keep them coming back is for Ibrahimovic to produce on a consistent basis like David Villa has with New York City FC. Villa has also embraced his role as a de facto ambassador. Ibrahimovic can do the same in his own inimitable way.
Yet the question that remains is whether his body will let him.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.