Welcome to Zlatan Ibrahimovic: recapping his wild first week in MLS
Has it really only been just over a week since Zlatan Ibrahimovic first landed in Los Angeles? Such was the magnitude of his LA Galaxy debut against LAFC, as well as the dizzying volume of attention since he arrived, that it feels like he's been here at least a month. Or even a season.
"To me, it was only around the beginning of March [that I thought this could happen]," said Galaxy coach Sigi Schmid of signing the iconic striker. "I was taking more of a guarded approach and saying, 'Look, I'm not going to get too worked up over this until I think it's closer to actually happening.' I think in the beginning of March it became something where there's a good chance of this happening and we're getting into more details."
Yet the calendar doesn't lie. Friday is Ibrahimovic's ninth day in the Galaxy's orbit, and the memories for fans, players, coaches and staff are still hot to the touch no matter when or where they might have occurred.
The Galaxy arranged for several busloads of supporters to be taken to Los Angeles International Airport in order to give Ibrahimovic a proper greeting. Jorge Pimentel, a member of the Angel City Brigade supporters group, missed out when David Beckham arrived back in 2007. He wasn't going to let that happen again.
"Zlatan is one of those players that if you go down the line of [Lionel] Messi, [Cristiano] Ronaldo ... Zlatan is in that conversation," he said. "Just to be in the presence of that and know that he's coming to your team, it was such an amazing feeling, something you definitely will tell you grandchildren, nieces, nephews; it was one of those experiences."
Another ACB member, Mingo Pena, Jr. took the event even further. His Zlatan fandom began in earnest just before the 2006 World Cup courtesy of an ad featuring Ibrahimovic, Ronaldo and Eric Cantona. He made sure that his 7-year-old stepson, Mello, and 7-month old Mingo III didn't miss out. Ibrahimovic may not have healing powers -- well, maybe he does, he is Zlatan after all -- but Pena wanted to make sure young Mingo came in contact with the Galaxy's new signing.
"I was telling my wife, 'I'm going to throw my son at him. I want Zlatan to hold my baby,'" said Pena. "I made eye contact with [Ibrahimovic] and was talking to him and told him, 'Hold my baby, hold my son!' I literally passed my son to him and he held him for two seconds. Then he gave him back.
"I told my son, 'You're lucky. It's taken me 28 years to meet Zlatan, it's only taken you seven months.'"
The first practice
Ibrahimovic may be larger than life, but not even he was spared the Galaxy's welcome-to-the-team ritual.
"Usually if it's your birthday or if you're a new player, we do the 'Tunnel of Death,'" said Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget. "It sounds a little overdramatic. The guys will line up and make a tunnel and the person in front will start kicking him or hitting him as he goes through. Nothing crazy: it's super fun and it brings a smile to everyone. It's good for everyone to break the ice. He's such a big guy that he kind of broke the tunnel halfway through, though."
Ibrahimovic took it in good humor, cracked a couple of jokes and then made the best possible first impression.
"Zlatan said he's not here to mess around, he wants to win and he reassured us that we are going to win," recalled Lletget. "He said he had the same ambition that he's had in the past. It was a great way to set the tempo and standard for the group. I think it was important for all of us to hear that."
"Face to face, the first time I met him was Friday at practice," said Schmid. "We had talked a few times on the phone so it wasn't anything uncomfortable. We had discussed some things, we'd had some longer phone conversations. You realize how big he is when you meet him in person for the first time."
The assembled press corps was immense, though the Galaxy resorted to some clever measures to make sure Ibrahimovic's path to his first training session was clear of journalists and fans.
"There was about as many reporters as when Beckham came, maybe even more," said Pena. "It was a zoo. I was buying Zlatan shirts at the Team LA store and when he walked by they locked everyone inside."
The news conference
Pena's ingenuity was soon back in midseason form as he managed to cajole his way into Ibrahimovic's introductory news conference.
"I saw one of my buddies who's a reporter," said Pena. "I said, 'It looks like you need an extra pair of hands, two in fact.' He said, 'What do you mean?' I said, 'That bag looks too heavy for you.' So we actually got to go into the news conference."
Ibrahimovic's string of positive first impressions continued, mixing typical Zlatan bombast with some humility as well.
"Just seeing the attention, press from all over the world to see Zlatan, the TV coverage on Sky Sports, CNN, stuff like that, everyone coming together for such a big person like Zlatan was really amazing," said Pimentel.
"Some guys are really short, say they're happy to be here and thank their agent, AEG, Chris Klein. But he said all the right things. As a supporter you want to hear him say he wants to win championships, you want to come to play, prove a lot of people wrong. I think he had a chip on his shoulder to say, 'Everyone thinks I'm old, everyone thought I was old in England, but it took me three months to conquer England and I want to do the same in LA.'
"As a supporter, that's definitely something you want to hear."
The derby and the entrance
As LAFC raced out to a 3-0 lead last Saturday, including an own-goal from Daniel Steres that appeared to be the coup de grace, it looked like Ibrahimovic would be a mere footnote, even if he made it off the subs' bench.
"It was one of those things where in the first half, a lot of guys were a little bit nervous, a bit hesitant to go all-out, to play our game and forget all the nonsense about this game," said Lletget. "We failed to do that in the first half.
Among the Galaxy fans, the emotions ranged from resignation to fury.
"When the own-goal went in, I was legit mad," said Pena. "Just that it was an own goal to top it off. I was going to go up to Steres and tell him to take off the shirt. For him it's a job but for us it's a lifestyle."
It was Lletget who started the comeback with a goal just after the hour mark, before becoming the answer to a trivia question as he made way for Ibrahimovic in the 71st minute.
"It's hard to say that the coach made the wrong decision," he said. "I think [Zlatan's] presence caught the team off guard. It added another element to our game, someone that they had to worry about and hadn't come across yet. It definitely showed."
Sure enough, Chris Pontius added a second and the Galaxy was running downhill.
"When the first goal went in, it was more of a consolation goal," said Pimentel. "I thought, 'Okay, cool, we're fighting. There's a fight in this team.' When the second goal came in, it was all bets are off. Anything and everything can happen."
It set the stage for the first of Ibrahimovic's legendary moments, a 40-yard laser guided strike that arced perfectly over LAFC goalkeeper Tyler Miller and into the net.
"It kind of happened in slow motion," said Lletget. "It set up perfectly for him. I think after Chris' goal to make it 3-2, we felt we're definitely not losing this game. The ball falls perfectly for him and we knew he was going to hit it. You see it go in and you're just kind of speechless; first, the type of goal that it was and second coming back from 3-0 in such a big game."
"We went insane," said Pimentel. "You're going through so much shock, you're so happy, so many positive emotions. You see strangers hugging, babies being lifted, it was amazing."
"He's Zlatan, so you're surprised at nothing," said Schmid. "I knew about his history of scoring pretty much everywhere he's gone in his first game. I thought we were already starting to turn the game before he came in, not just because of the goal but we were starting to get better possession and doing good things.
"When you bring in a player like that, and I think the second goal is a good example, [Dejan] Jakovic totally ignores [Emmanuel] Boateng just because he's concerned about Zlatan even though he's 5 yards outside the 18. So he draws attention and that opens up space of other players, so we were hoping for that.
"Did I think he was going to score that first wonder goal? Probably not. But I thought he would be 'goal dangerous' and would be able to get a goal."
Pena, meanwhile, was being hailed as a modern day Nostradamus. But instead of taking satisfaction with his first prognostication, he doubled down.
"When it was 3-3, people were like, 'Dude, you called it.' I said, 'We're not done yet. We've still got one more goal.'"
True to Pena's prediction, Ibrahimovic came through again. "The cross [from Ashley Cole] came in, [Zlatan] heads it in, boom goes the dynamite," said Pena.
"I went into tears because of all the preparation that the [ACB] put in, 40-50 hours for the tifo, all those banners. When Zlatan came in, it was like, 'Don't worry guys, all your hard work is going to pay off.'"
"Obviously we were very happy," said Schmid. "There was euphoria on the bench. I think one of my assistant coaches was doing knee jumps or something.
"I've been around a long time so you get excited, but you don't go crazy. With it being 3-3, and the manner of the goal, the importance of the goal, it was something that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up."
Of course, no high lasts forever. For the players especially, there are new mountains to climb and additional opponents to go up against. It's worth noting that there are 30 games left in the Galaxy's regular-season schedule. That said, there are victories that can drive a team on to greater things. Putting the game in its proper context requires a balancing act.
"The game helped us come together and realize we could fight through anything," said Lletget. "It's hard to stop talking about that game. It's hard to stop saying how crazy that was. It was so amazing for the league, for the city, for both clubs. More for us, obviously, but the next one will be even crazier. That's the hard part, where you just have to... not forget about it, but you have to move forward because we can't go from that and then lose to KC. We know we have to win again."
"You just go about your business, get into the regular work pattern of the week," said Schmid, "but I don't want the team to forget it. We watched [the game] again on Tuesday because it's something the team recognizes and knows that no situation is impossible at this stage with this team. But it's just a matter of us getting back to work knowing that we have a job to do on Sunday."
A normal day at work pic.twitter.com/wB9LPxFfH5— Zlatan Ibrahimović (@Ibra_official) April 2, 2018
Even the Galaxy's opponent this weekend, Sporting Kansas City, understands what Ibrahimovic has meant to his team and MLS already.
"It was an incredible spectacle," said SKC manager Peter Vermes. "I think that's a great thing for the league. Obviously, they're a competitor of ours but I have a real interest in seeing the league grow, and there's no doubt that that was a great moment for the league. It was fun to watch."
Fans have the luxury of letting a game like this linger in the memory for a while longer.
"I've probably seen the third goal 150 times," said Pimentel. "Seeing the coverage of Zlatan was amazing. The conversation is back to the Galaxy and it just feels natural, like that's how it should be."
Since Saturday's stunning debut, it's been non-stop reaction to and reflection upon Ibrahimovic's performance. He's made appearances around Los Angeles, too, including a cameo at Thursday night's hockey game between the LA Kings and the Minnesota Wild where he indulged in a soccer warm-up with the city's NHL team.
And of course, attention has turned to what he might do next. Will he feature against Sporting KC on Sunday night?
"We'll see. That's for me to know and for you to find out," said Schmid of his new No.9. "He's trained all this week. He's a veteran player, he knows his body better than any of us. He and I will sit and discuss."
But there are longer-term impacts for the city and the Galaxy's fans regardless of what he does from this point forward. A match, and a player like Zlatan, can inspire and create lifelong supporters. It is a moment like last Saturday that can sustain a fan through difficult times.
"Everyday when [my son] Mello comes home from school, he says, 'Can I see the Zlatan video?'" said Pena. "Or we're watching TV and that's all they're talking about: his goal, his impact. It brings a lot of joy to me because I always said when I have kids, I want them to love the sport as much as I do, and they're getting there little by little.
"Zlatan brought the joy back."
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.