Ibrahimovic's epic debut bodes well for long, challenging journey in MLS
Zlatan Ibrahimovic isn't the first player to score multiple goals in his MLS debut. In fact, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, 15 other players have duplicated the feat, including five in the past decade. That said, Ibrahimovic's performance in the LA Galaxy's 4-3 comeback win over LAFC on Saturday will go down as the most memorable.
The last player to make that kind of entrance was striker Jermain Defoe, who bagged two goals for Toronto FC against Seattle on opening day in 2014. Fredy Montero scored twice for the Seattle Sounders against the New York Red Bulls in 2009 in what was not only his MLS debut, but the team's as well. On March 19, 2011, there was a near epidemic of MLS debut doubles, with Kansas City's Omar Bravo, the Vancouver Whitecaps' Eric Hassli and D.C United's Charlie Davies all scoring twice. Davies, like Ibrahimovic, even managed to get his two as a substitute.
Suffice it to say, none of those garnered near the attention -- before or after -- nor did they carry with them the expectations that Ibrahimovic did on Saturday. Ibrahimovic isn't necessarily being asked to resurrect a franchise. Manager Sigi Schmid's remodeling project has been going on the entire offseason. But the Swede is being tasked with moving the needle in a city saturated with sports entertainment opportunities. No pressure there.
Saturday was also the occasion of the first L.A. derby between the Galaxy and expansion side LAFC -- "El Trafico," as it has now been dubbed -- and for the better part of an hour, it looked like the upstarts would end up celebrating a famous victory. By now, everyone knows what happened next: Ibrahimovic's sublimely struck 40-yard rocket to equalize in the 77th minute, followed by his header just seconds into stoppage time.
And so a Galaxy legend has been born in just over 20 on-field minutes, an achievement that other high-profile players arriving in MLS have taken much longer to attain. David Villa didn't score in his debut for New York City FC. The same is true for the Galaxy's David Beckham, the Chicago Fire's Cuauhtemoc Blanco and the Red Bulls' Thierry Henry, though both Blanco and Henry recorded at least one assist. About the only player who made a splash similar to Ibrahimovic was Didier Drogba, who while failing to score in his first match as a substitute for the Montreal Impact against the Philadelphia Union, bagged a hat trick in his first start against the Chicago Fire.
Of course, the vast majority of those players went on to live up to the hype that their designated player salaries warranted. Villa is a two-time Best XI and league MVP winner. Beckham overcame some early stumbles to win two MLS Cup titles with the Galaxy. Blanco and Henry were both MVP finalists during their respective tenures in the league. Contrast those performances with the likes of New York City FC's Andrea Pirlo and the Galaxy's Steven Gerrard, who arrived -- Gerrard even scored in his debut -- but ultimately contributed little.
Without question, Ibrahimovic's performance Saturday was pure, unabashed fun, one of those matches with which people will regale their grandchildren in years to come. But contributing over a sustained period will ultimately be Ibrahimovic's biggest challenge. So far, it's one he looks up for meeting.
For all the clever one-liners he has delivered since arriving Thursday, Ibrahimovic has mixed in some humility as well. Could it be an act, one that is due to evaporate once the reality of substandard teammates and cross-country flights sets in? It's possible, but Ibrahimovic's body language so far suggests otherwise in a way reminiscent of Beckham's last few years in MLS.
For all the airbrushing of history about Beckham's time with the Galaxy, the reality is that in the early years of the deal, the Galaxy needed Beckham more than he needed them, and it showed. This manifested itself in Beckham's decision to go on multiple loans, even if it meant missing large chunks of the MLS season. It was a bad look for the team and the league.
That all changed when Beckham tore his Achilles tendon, putting an end to his aspirations of playing in the 2010 World Cup. He realized the Galaxy and MLS could actually give him something beyond a paycheck, and his commitment level increased. Galaxy fans that at one point scorned him over his loans were eventually converted.
While the Ibrahimovic situation isn't identical to that of Beckham, the serious knee injury he sustained nearly a year ago provides a similarity. Yes, MLS is a clear step down from the Premier League, but there is still plenty to be gained from playing for the Galaxy. As Ibrahimovic has said more than once since arriving in L.A., this latest adventure gives him an opportunity to enjoy the simple things that the game gives him, to "smell the grass, appreciate the ball, to touch it, to kick it."
And on days like Saturday, it can give him the kind of buzz that players and fans live for. That bodes well for both Ibrahimovic and the Galaxy.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.