Slightly over three years ago, Major League Soccer was spellbound by an unexpected signing when the Los Angeles Galaxy welcomed world-class striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic after a brief stint with Manchester United of the Premier League in a move which had the football world talking.
However, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s time with Manchester United was marred by the injury bug, as in April of 2017, during his first and only full season with the team, he sustained a serious injury to his right ACL in a UEFA Europa League quarterfinal match against RSC Anderlecht of the Belgian First Division A (also known as the Jupiler Pro League.)
Zlatan Returns To Man United
With Ibrahimovic sidelined for at least the start of the 2017-18 Premier League season, Man United made the decision to let his contract expire after the 2016-17 Premier League season concluded, yet the team would not completely close the door on a potential return by Ibrahimovic if his injury recovery permitted it.
According to Stanley Kay, then of Sports Illustrated at the time of the decision to allow Ibrahimovic’s contract with Man United:
“Ibrahimovic, 35, signed a one-year deal with the club last summer, and his current contract will expire on June 30. The Swede sustained a serious knee ligament in April that will reportedly keep him out until January 2018.”
By that August, Man United did an about-face, re-signing Ibrahimovic to another one-year contract, inheriting the club’s No. 10 kit from Wayne Rooney, who captained the club during its 2016-17 campaign.
Although Ibrahimovic had been projected to be inactive due to his ACL injury until the following January, he returned to the pitch in November of 2017, just seven months removed from the injury that ended his run the previous season.
Zlatan Returns From Injury, Then Leaves For MLS
During the 77th minute of the Nov. 18, 2017, Premier League fixture between Man United and Newcastle United, Zlatan Ibrahimovic saw his first action of the season, being substituted on for forward Anthony Martial, seeing out the team’s 4-1 victory.
Four months later, Man United and Ibrahimovic agreed to end his contract with the team, but 24 hours later, he took his talents to the West Coast of the United States of America, when he signed on via a free transfer with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
In announcing the move, Ibrahimovic famously took out a full-page advertisement in the March 24, 2018 edition of The Los Angeles Times, with the caption simply reading:
Zlatan Ibrahimovic Makes Immediate Impact Off The Bench in First El Trafico Match
Zlatan Ibrahimovic only joined the Galaxy on the Thursday afternoon prior to the team’s first head-to-head match against then-expansion side LAFC, dubbed El Trafico, making his first appearance on the training grounds just one day ahead of the contest, but his lack of training sessions ahead of the match proved inconsequential in the long run.
During the second half of the game on March 31, 2018, Ibrahimovic was subbed on for midfielder Sebastian Lleget, later converting what would eventually become the best goal in MLS history in spectacular fashion, thanks to a double volley from 45 yards away, with FOX Sports‘ lead MLS play-by-play commentator John Strong summing up the goal thusly:
“(Ola) Kamara throwing his body in, it’s going to fall for IBRAHIMOVIC! OH, COME ON! COME ON!“
Ibrahimovic wasn’t done there, as he tallied his second goal off the bench in second-half stoppage time to give the Galaxy a 4-3 victory in the first-ever game against their new rivals.
“Like I said yesterday, it was supposed to happen before, it didn’t,” Ibrahimovic said. “But I’m here and it was destiny. I was supposed to come and I’m here, not just to enjoy, perform and do what I do best: Win the games and help my teammates, help the club, make the fans enjoy, so I’m here, I’m ready.”
That 4-3 Galaxy win on March 31, 2018, was the only edition of El Trafico that first season to produce a victor after 90 minutes of action plus stoppage time, as the other two meetings between the teams in 2018 both ended in draws.
As of April of 2022, the Galaxy has the upper hand in El Trafico, winning six of the 14 all-time contests versus LAFC.
Ibrahimovic Scores 30 Goals During 2019 MLS Season and Makes a Bold Claim
The 2019 MLS season marked Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s only full season in North America’s top-flight league, but he made MLS his own personal playground three years ago, scoring 30 goals in league play for the Galaxy during the regular season, less than a year removed from his 500th career tally across all competitions against Toronto FC in September of 2018.
During that 2019 MLS season, Ibrahimovic was interviewed by ESPN FC’s Herculez Gomes, giving the rest of the league bulletin board material.
The following is an exchange between Ibrahimovic and Gomez from this interview:
Herculez Gomez: I look at how far the league’s come today and they’re still not at the world’s elite. What does Major League Soccer need to do to get to the world’s elite level?
Zlatan Ibrahimovic: I mean, it’s in a progress. It depends on the players that play here. You said you played, yourself, so I don’t know what the level was, but if you mean players like me, (Wayne) Rooney…
Gomez: Our best player was a Guatemalan player named Carlos Ruiz. The Galaxy’s best player today is Zlatan.
Ibrahimovic: No, I’m the MLS’ best player. It’s a big difference.
Ibrahimovic Leaves MLS and Reasserts Claim Three Years Later
After the 2019 MLS season, Zlatan Ibrahimovic departed from the Galaxy, having scored 53 goals across all competitions in 58 matches to return to European football for his second stint with Serie A side AC Milan, where he’s finishing up his second full season with the club.
“I’m very happy. I’m very thankful for MLS because they gave me the chance to feel alive,” Ibrahimovic began. “But the problem was I was still too alive. So I was too good for the whole competition. That is what I showed. And I’m the best ever to play in MLS and that is not me having an ego or trying to show off now. That is true.”
The topic of whether or not Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the greatest athlete ever to set foot in Major League Soccer is one that will probably forever be up for debate and this article is not the time, nor is it the place, to coronate Ibrahimovic as an all-time great in the 26-plus-year history of this league.
Although Ibrahimovic’s time in MLS was short, he gave fans of the league plenty to cheer about and he got plenty of rousing ovations from crowds as a result.
Let the debate rage on.