Football Features

Zlatan Ibrahimovic: The face of MLS or a dinosaur figurehead threatening its evolution?

By Chris Smith

Published: 11:30, 16 September 2019

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, internationally renowned assassin and ruthless scorer of goals, has been doing bits in MLS.

The former Sweden international moved to LA Galaxy midway through the 2018 US season and despite not quite managing to fire them into the playoffs, he still notched a quite remarkable 22 goals in 27 games.

This season included, that record has now been extended to 48 goals and 11 assists in 52 outings. Those cold, hard stats make for mightily impressive reading. Zlatan doing Zlatan things.

In fact, so good has Ibrahimovic been that LA Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto even suggested he’s still on the same level of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

“I think Ibra is at the same level as Messi and Ronaldo; it’s not easy to have a player like him; he’s very good,” stated the Argentine strategist.

“If we find Zlatan in the area, we know he’s going to score, so we have to make it work, from right to left because once he has the ball in the area, he’s very calm in taking the best decisions.”

That’s one big, ambitious claim. Some would argue that even during his spectacular stints with PSG, Man Utd or in Serie A, Ibrahimovic was never in the realms of Ronaldo or Messi. So to suggest it now, at 37 years old, takes some bottle.

But the real question worth addressing is this: is he good enough to warrant such public pandering? To get away with taking the ‘Zlatan’ schtick to a new level in declaring “I am the MLS”?

Well firstly, a look past the black and white of the aforementioned goalscoring stat reveals a slightly different story. Six of Ibrahimovic’s goals this season have come from the penalty spot.

Sure, you still have to put them away but doing it unchallenged from 12 yards is a much simpler task than curling one in a la Carlos Vela or Ezequiel Barco.

We’re quite possibly being very harsh on Ibrahimovic here. His own highlights reel is one to sit back and admire in itself and he has his fair share of screamers. Meanwhile, his ego and showmanship have the ability to make you laugh, cry or launch your beer at the TV.

Just ask former Manchester City and QPR defender Nedum Onuoha, who felt the full wrath of Zlatan during Real Salt Lake’s 2-1 defeat to LA Galaxy in April.

“This time he hit me on top of the head. I was again thinking: ‘What is going on here?'” he told BBC Sport after an off-the-ball incident saw Ibrahimovic booked for dragging Onuoha to the ground by his neck.

“He kept saying: ‘You know what? I am going to hurt you. I am going to do you. You just watch, there is enough time, I am going to do you.'”

Ibrahimovic later scored the winning goal and celebrated by screaming in Onuoha’s face. He apologised for his actions after the game, a gesture rejected by Onuoha who branded the striker as ‘arrogant’, but the whole thing felt unsavoury, unneccesary and not in keeping with the new path being walked by MLS.

 

The US’ top flight has long been known across the pond as a retirement home for Europe’s old heads. The likes of David Beckham and Robbie Keane saw out their careers there to huge success. Tim Howard is doing so now at Colorado Rapids to a far less fruitful degree. Bastian Schweinsteiger is currently the most famous face at Chicago Fire and Wayne Rooney has been a revelation at DC United.

However, next to Schweinsteiger is 20-year-old Djordje Mihailovic. Next to Rooney is PSG target, Luciano Acosta. The likes of Paxton Pomykal and Brenden Aaronson are also impressing during their first forays into MLS life.

Expansion is now the buzzword in MLS. Atlanta United won the 2018 MLS Cup in just their second season in the league. Managed by former Barcelona boss Gerardo Martino, the Five Stripes turned heads across the footballing world with their ability to soak up pressure and absolute ruthless streak up front. Miguel Almiron was the poster boy, Josef Martinez scored a ridiculous 35 goals in 39 games and although it has taken him until this season to truly flourish, Argentina U20 international Barco is now showing his true brilliance.

Almiron was flipped to Newcastle for £21m in January, a huge profit on the £6m Atlanta paid for him, and was replaced by last season’s South American Player of the Year and Copa Libertadores winner, Gonzalo ‘Pity’ Martinez. Young, South American talent with high ceilings and huge resale value.

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The same is happening at LAFC. Vela is grabbing all the headlines with 28 goals and 10 assists in 27 games but behind him, Uruguayan starlet Diego Rossi has 15 goals and five assists after notching 17 goals in all competitions last season. This is also LAFC’s second season in MLS and if they’re on top form in the playoffs, they could be taking Atlanta’s title before the year is out.

After a scoring a hat-trick in LA Galaxy’s 7-2 win over Sporting KC, Ibrahimovic declared himself as the “best-ever player in MLS”. Let’s face it, he hasn’t even been the best player in MLS this season.

Ibrahimovic’s signing still makes sense in all of this. LA Galaxy need a goalscorer and they need a face for their franchise. But the full-page advert taken out in the Los Angeles Times upon his signing that simply read ‘Dear Los Angeles, you’re welcome’, his antics with Onuoha and the whole fanfare surrounding him from Vancouver Whitecaps’ own fans all hark back to a different time in MLS history. Some of it’s quite funny. All of it is incredibly jarring.

Ibra still has his place. His goals and effect on youngsters such as 17-year-old Mexican, Efrain Alvarez, are hugely important. But he doesn’t define the league.

After years being perceived as a European boneyard, MLS has become a bright, young, flourishing league packed with exciting talent. Tyler Adams and Almiron are just two exponents flying in Europe, while Columbus Crew goalkeeper Zack Steffen has also moved across the pond to Manchester City, heading on loan to Fortuna Dusseldorf. If Ibrahimovic is to avoid becoming the pantomime villain, he must take a step back from the Zlatan show and allow this new blood their voice.

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