Zlatan Ibrahimovic brings brilliant goals, fresh belief to LA Galaxy, MLS
The lion said he was hungry, and his LA Galaxy debut turned into a feast that was nothing short of legendary.
On Saturday afternoon, Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored twice in the final 15 minutes -- including the game winner seconds into stoppage time -- to complete a comeback for the ages and turn a 3-0 deficit into a 4-3 LA Galaxy win against crosstown rivals LAFC.
But he also offered the Galaxy much more than two goals and three points in the standings. He gave the organization a heavy dose of early-season belief that it is back on the right track and will be a force to contend with in MLS this season. Finally, there's the added bonus of giving the Galaxy early bragging rights in a pulsating first-ever match between the two teams, with the victory marking just the second time in MLS history that a team had come back from three goals down to claim a win in 90 minutes.
For the better part of an hour, it seemed like a day where everything was going to go LAFC's way and that Ibrahimovic's presence wouldn't be needed. Carlos Vela scored two sumptuous goals to give LAFC a 2-0 halftime lead, and when Galaxy defender Daniel Steres deflected in Marco Urena's square pass three minutes into the second half, it seemed over.
Yet those goals proved to be a mere appetizer for the smorgasbord that followed.
Sebastian Lletget pulled a goal back in the 61st minute, and amid chants of "We want Zlatan," Ibrahimovic entered the match 10 minutes later. Every time he touched the ball, there was a sense of excitement and anticipation. And as he has so often in his career, he delivered.
Just two minutes after Ibrahimovic came on, Chris Pontius headed home Emmanuel Boateng's cross to make the score 3-2. Then the real madness began.
A lofted LAFC free kick was won in midfield by the Galaxy's Steres. Ola Kamara challenged for the looping header and kept the play alive as the ball sailed over him, which allowed Ibrahimovic to run past him and collect the ball. Spotting LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller well off his line, Ibra lashed home a shot from 40 yards -- his first effort in Major League Soccer -- that sailed into the LAFC net. The StubHub Center erupted in euphoria as Ibrahimovic took off his shirt to celebrate and was swarmed by his teammates.
"I was thinking to save strength because I don't know how long I would [last]," he told Fox Sports afterward. "'So let's shoot in one,' I said. And it went in."
He added, "I was happy. Too much adrenaline. It's difficult to describe the feeling after you score a goal like that."
At that stage of the game, with 13 minutes still left to play, the Galaxy were speeding around the field as if they were at the Auto Club Speedway in nearby Fontana while LAFC was stuck in traffic on the 405. Sure enough, euphoria soon gave way to delirium. In the first minute of stoppage time, Ibrahimovic headed home Ashley Cole's cross, looping the ball over an onrushing Miller even as there was more than a hint of offside. The comeback was complete, and a new Galaxy legend was announced.
"My history when I come to a new team, I score always in the first official game," said Ibrahimovic. "I wouldn't let it down this time. I had to score."
It all amounted to as spectacular a debut as one could have expected, and one that no doubt exceeded the Galaxy's wildest hopes. This is an organization that seemed to have lost its way last season, as it slumped to a last-place finish in 2017. Even before that, its enviable record with designated players had been tarnished, as players such as Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard never lived up to their expected billing.
In just one game, Ibrahimovic has done that and more with his two goals encapsulating just what he can give the Galaxy this season. The first one showed his genius, imagination and penchant for the spectacular. The second revealed how even at age 36, his strength still makes him a force to be reckoned with in the box, allowing him to score the kind of gritty goals that count just as much as the stunners.
Keep in mind that Ibrahimovic arrived in the U.S. only on Thursday night and was able to train just once with his new teammates prior to Saturday's match. His last competitive match for previous club Manchester United came back in December. Yet none of that mattered. Neither did questions about his age or physical condition.
Ibrahimovic's $1.5 million annual salary now looks like a steal -- and not just because of what he has done on the field, but because of how he makes people feel around it. His entrance into the game Saturday brought the crowd to life and then to the brink of total pandemonium. It's the kind of sensation that keeps fans coming back hungry for more.
The lion in LA Galaxy clothing can relate.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.