A flair for the dramatic has always been central to Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s carefully crafted persona. He is a man who does nothing by halves. The Swedish forward doesn’t just score bicycle kicks; he nets them from 30 yards out. He doesn’t just consistently refer to himself in the third person — Zlatan has also compared himself, at varies times, to Jesus Christ, Benjamin Button and King Kong.
So it came as no surprise when he commemorated his LA Galaxy debut with two goals. He turned the inaugural El Trafico crosstown rivalry match against LAFC into a one-man show first with a long-range thumberbolt that tied the game and, later, the game winner during stoppage time.
It also came as no surprise when he was red carded in the first half of the Galaxy’s match in Montreal on Monday afternoon, goaded by Michael Petrasso stepping on his foot into slapping the back of his opponent’s neck.
Ibrahimovic’s impulsive act of retaliation not only ruled him out for the second half of a match LA surprisingly went on to win, but also for Friday night’s “Cali Clasico” against San Jose at the StubHub Center.
That’s Zlatan. That’s what you get with big personalities — and Zlatan has about as big a personality as any star in the history of the game. When things are going well, they go great: Ibrahimovic lifts the collective closer to his own lofty plane. When things aren’t… well, they can get extremely unpleasant in a hurry. And right now, all is not well in Carson.
That the short-handed Galaxy somehow roused themselves to pick up all three points in Quebec will give coach Sigi Schmid encouragement, but it also touches on the club’s hidden-in-plain-sight flaw: That it sometimes plays its best soccer without its biggest names on the field.
This phenomenon isn’t new. Amassing as much individual talent as possible without sparing a thought to how it might actually fit together has been close to a defining principle since the Bruce Arena days. Schmid is of a similar mold.
“You can never have too many good players,” Schmid said upon the signing of Jordan Morris in Seattle, articulating what is close to his central coaching philosophy.
Whether or not the strategy can still lead to championships in the modern era of Major League Soccer is an open question. Much has changed even in the past few years. This is no longer the MLS the Galaxy won three times between the years of 2011 and 2014. The teams atop the standings — Atlanta, the New Yorks and Columbus in the East, Kansas City and LAFC in the West — all have clearly defined identities and preferred styles of play.
The Galaxy missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2008, and though Schmid revamped the roster around the edges, its core still felt off-balance. Nothing fits together exactly right. Enter Zlatan.
Ibrahimovic’s signing was high-risk, high-reward from the outset. Given the challenge for attention posed by LAFC and the player’s talent for attracting it, the club really had no choice but to make the move — but it always felt combustible.
Ibrahimovic’s reputation as a lovable rogue could skew more negatively, too. He essentially forced his way out of one of the best club teams of all time, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, and has gleefully taken pot shots at the coach ever since. He once got in a legitimate fistfight with AC Milan and former U.S. international Oguchi Onyewu in practice. Suffice it to say that Ibrahimovic’s immature burst of impetuousness in Montreal wasn’t the first of his career.
The good vibes inspired by his standout performance against LAFC didn’t last long. Prior to Monday, the Galaxy had lost five games out of six. Even factoring in the Montreal win, and even in this underwhelming Western Conference, the Galaxy still sits outside the postseason places.
Ibrahimovic publicly lashed out at his new teammates after the 3-2 loss in Houston earlier this month. “Either I wake up, and I take care of it, or we all wake up,” he told reporters.
For a man whose entire personal brand is basically #AlwaysWinning, every defeat has to have hurt. Frustration had been building, and remember, Zlatan is someone that does nothing by halves. Whether his slap of Petrasso serves as a release or as a foreshadowing to additional outbursts could determine whether the Ibrahimovic experiment flames out before it ever really begins.
Matt Pentz is a Seattle-based soccer reporter covering primarily the Sounders, Timbers and Whitecaps. Follow him on Twitter @mattpentz.