How Zlatan built his MLS legend: The oral history of Ibrahimovic's Galaxy debut
It hardly seems possible that almost a year has passed since the LA Galaxy debut of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
It was a special day on a multitude of levels. Not only was it the Swede's first game in MLS, but the match also was the inaugural encounter between the Galaxy and new crosstown rival LAFC in El Trafico. And this was one instance where the game exceeded the hype, as Zlatan's two goals off the bench -- including a 35-yard masterpiece -- capped a comeback for the ages, leading the Galaxy to a 4-3 win.
What follows is an oral history of that day from those who were there, the firsthand accounts of 12 people in Carson, California, on March 31, 2018, a look back that is almost as fun -- for Galaxy fans, anyway -- as the game itself.
Ibrahimovic's arrival was manic, to say the least. The Galaxy's star acquisition arrived Thursday night, practiced and did an introductory news conference on Friday, and then had the game on Saturday. But Zlatan doesn't do jet lag, as a worldwide audience was about to find out.
Chris Klein, Galaxy president: With anything that Ibra does comes with an element of craziness and attention. From the arrival to the first LAFC game that was less than 48 hours away, it was a whirlwind. And then after we didn't know how much he could play, what he could do, where he was physically -- it became a crazy couple of days.
Chris Pontius, midfielder, LA Galaxy: I met Ibra for the first time the day before the LAFC game. He was meeting everyone on the team at the same time, so it was pretty brief to be honest. It was probably three weeks before he even knew my name. There were a few guys whose names he messed up pretty badly even later on than that, which was quite funny. He called Perry Kitchen "Kevin" for like a month into [the season].
Dominic Kinnear, assistant coach, LA Galaxy: The first time I met Zlatan, he came into the coach's office, and it was interesting. You know about this player for so many years and obviously he's a wonderful soccer player, a huge personality, so the first time you meet him, it's something a little bit odd, but it's exciting because you know how good a player he was and how important he was going to be to the team. But it was very pleasant. It was a good first impression that I think has lasted.
The Tunnel of Death
Every team has a "welcome to the club" ritual. For the Galaxy, it's called the "Tunnel of Death," in which a new player -- or one celebrating a birthday -- has to run through a gantlet of players who proceed to slap, hit or squirt water on him as he runs through. Zlatan created a slightly different dynamic, at least for a few players.
Daniel Steres, defender, LA Galaxy: Zlatan went through it like everyone else. We were giving him the same treatment. He was good; he was trying to acclimate himself to the team, get used to playing in America and MLS. I think he was pretty cool about it.
Pontius: I would assume that no one hit Zlatan hard enough to piss him off. I certainly wasn't going to be the one to do that, so I gave him a light tap. He's a pretty intimidating guy. Before I knew him, I wasn't going to do anything to piss him off. Now it's different.
Sebastian Lletget, midfielder, LA Galaxy: I think if we'd known Ibra sooner, if we knew more of his personality, we would have kicked him harder. But we didn't know what to expect [at the time]. Now we always have a good laugh.
The first practice
It's easy to forget that Ibrahimovic was coming off a devastating knee injury that had kept him out for the better part of a year. While he played a handful of games for Manchester United that season, it was clear he wasn't 100 percent fit. Heading into his first MLS game, no one knew what to expect.
Ivan Pierra, trainer, LA Galaxy: We were in pretty good contact with [Manchester United]. Our team doctor, Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, knows the physicians over there, and I have familiar acquaintances from when I worked with the national team. So we already had pretty good communication in that respect. Ibra was still recovering from his knee injury, but he was in pretty decent shape. The one thing I've got to give him props for is that he's a hard worker. He really gets after it and he's pretty serious about his business. That was a pleasant surprise for me knowing that this guy took care of himself at the top level.
Steres: I think it was a pretty easy day, but you could see his touches ... you could see the quality immediately. We had a little scrimmage or possession and you could see it there. We didn't know what sort of shape he'd be in, or how he'd hold up.
The match didn't mark the first Los Angeles intracity rivalry: Chivas USA existed in the city for over 10 seasons, but LAFC took its place in 2018 with a new ownership group, stadium and logo. Given LAFC's impressive financial backing, not to mention the roster building by manager Bob Bradley, the match had the makings of an intense encounter -- even with Ibrahimovic starting from the bench.
Maria Lopez, Galaxians supporters group: I was so pumped. I came from Tijuana that morning. We were on vacation there for spring break. I told my husband I had other things to do. I didn't tell him I was going to the soccer game. So we came back from TJ that morning. We got to the stadium super early.
Steres: There was a buzz around the city that whole day. When we showed up there was already their fans and our fans. It was a nice day out. There was a different energy than usual.
Kinnear: The atmosphere of the game exceeded my expectations by a mile. I thought the atmosphere was, for me, an MLS Cup atmosphere. It was electric; both sets of fans were there in full voice. Then obviously you had kickoff, and the game told its own story.
Lletget: As soon as you walked out for the warm-up, you could just feel the energy building up. Both teams brought it out of each other. Then, of course, the suspense of Zlatan's first game. Nobody knew if he was going to play. We didn't know what to expect after that.
Steven Beitashour, defender, LAFC: At the time we were on a roll heading into their place. I remember walking onto the field and the corner section was just all LAFC fans dressed in black. You could just hear them singing and drumming and chanting. It was pretty sweet. There was definitely a buzz before the match even started.
LAFC races ahead
For all the talk of rivalry, the match appeared headed toward a blowout. Two Carlos Vela goals staked LAFC to a 2-0 halftime lead. An own goal by Steres just minutes into the second half increased the lead to 3-0, and appeared to put the Galaxy in a death spiral.
Pontius: For the first 45 minutes, we had been completely outplayed. The second half we actually came out and put a little pressure on them, and they hit us on a quick counter and got the third goal. Just all this talk of this new rivalry in town, and it's not a game you want to be down 3-0. You don't want to be on the losing end of it, especially at home and by that margin. It was certainly unacceptable.
Steres: On the third goal, I was trying to block off an angle, I blocked the cross and it just happened to hit me in a stride when I was moving forward. I was obviously upset, but I just turned it around and just like, laughed. I can't believe this is happening right now.
Lletget: I think we sort of lost all fear in a way. It was like, "We just got to leave it all out here. It's already 3-0, we might as well just go for it." Obviously keep your tactics, keep your formation, but we've just got to go for it, throw it up an extra gear and whatever happens, happens. And of course, don't concede another one. That was the mentality: Let's do this. [The third goal] changed everything, to be honest. We were fitter, we ran everywhere, and from that moment on it was a wake-up call.
Glenn Vidrio, Angel City Brigade (LA Galaxy) supporters group: The second goal [for LAFC] came and we were like, "What's going on here?" It was like bizarro world. We were walking the concourse, my wife and I, and we saw so many LAFC fans who were just living it up and laughing up the moment and soaking it in. We were like, "We're going to come back." Then we're back in the stands and the third goal goes in, and I think for the most part there was a defeated feeling. A lot of shoulders dropped. But everyone just rose to the occasion and kept supporting the team.
Brian Zuniga, Angel City Brigade: I'm a capo [supporters section lead] with the ACB, so our mentality is if we go down a goal, we don't stop. We get louder. For this game, I was thinking, "We can't lose to them. Not these [guys]." I couldn't take that s---. It was really bad.
The comeback begins
Lletget pulled a goal back in the 61st minute on a quick break following an LAFC turnover. Ibrahimovic entered the match in the 71st minute for Lletget; moments later, Pontius scored after an Ema Boateng cross. At that point, the momentum had swung back toward the home side.
Kinnear: At halftime, we said, "Can we get pressure higher up the field? Can we press them a little higher?" Being 3-0 down, you can be a little more risky going forward. Then we got our first goal out of that and it kind of snowballed in our favor from there.
Another thing we did mention was that when the ball went wide, they had Joao Moutinho playing left-back, and we thought that Pontius could take advantage of him in the air. I don't know if Pontius is underrated in the air, but I think he's very good in the air. He gets a second goal like that ... [it] definitely momentum swung in our favor. The Galaxy fans were a little bit more vocal.
Pontius: Zlatan is a guy I've grown up watching play. I played against him in a friendly once when I was with D.C. United, and I think that was his first game for PSG. He scored against us in like two minutes. You put in a guy with that kind of quality, it doesn't matter if he hasn't played in a while, he's going to draw attention from the other team. I think even on my goal, he draws some players out of the box and Boateng is able to dribble through. I think if it's any other guy out there, I don't think they draw the same attention that [Ibrahimovic] does.
Vidrio: Midway through the second half, you could just hear the stadium start the chant, "We want Zlatan!" It just took over the stadium. Once you heard a few hundred people doing it, almost the entire stadium followed. He came on, and it felt like the game started anew.
Beitashour: When it was 3-0, we were passing the ball, and I swear all the fans started saying "Ole!" It genuinely felt like it switched from their home field to our home field. And then when they get the first two goals, you definitely felt the momentum switching.
The legend of Ibra begins in MLS
Ibrahimovic made his presence felt in the buildup to Pontius' goal. That set the stage for the first of Ibrahimovic's signature moments, a volley from 35 yards that looped over goalkeeper Tyler Miller and into the back of the LAFC net. The strike was an instant classic, a standout in a highlight reel of a career that has few peers.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, LA Galaxy (as told to Fox Sports): I was thinking to save strength because I don't know how much I would [last]. "So let's shoot in one," I said. And it went in. ... I was happy. Too much adrenaline. It's difficult to describe the feeling after you score a goal like that.
Lopez: When Zlatan scored that goal, wow, it was an honor for me to be there to watch it in person. [Galaxians president] Carlisa Perdomo was sitting next to me and she ran out of breath. She almost passed out. I was like, "Breathe! Breathe! It's OK!"
Kinnear: When Ibra scored, I was leaning up against a watercooler, and I just put my head down on my forearms, and I was like, "What the heck was that?" I looked at [Galaxy vice president of communications] Brendan Hannan and he looked at me, and I was just speechless. Everyone celebrates in their own way, and obviously the stands were going crazy, but I just remember being completely stunned.
Pierra: The high-fives hurt because we did them so hard. It was just one of those things where you're going, "Hell, yeah! This is cool." The whole disbelief of the game being ... first of all the goal, you're going, "Holy s---, he actually pulled this off." There was a lot of different emotions going on there, for sure.
Beitashour: It was frustrating because it came from Miller clearing the ball to Steres, who headed it back out. In that moment, Dejan [Jakovic] goes up to head the ball and Ola Kamara doesn't even make one ounce of an attempt to get the ball. He just straight-up bulldozes Dejan. We kind of stop and think the ref is going to blow the whistle. I think if it was anyone else, if you don't see Zlatan coming up to hit that, I think the ref will blow the whistle. But unfortunately, the star power, he let it go and at that point there's no chance of the ref bringing it back. When Zlatan hits a "worldy" you're just going, "Well, sorry guys." It was unfortunate, for sure.
Mark Geiger, referee in this game: We love the sport and we certainly appreciate great play by any player. It had a quick build-up: There was contact between two players, an attacker and a defender, Zlatan gets the ball and just shoots from so far out. You're watching the shot happen, and just the pace of the ball, and then just being dead on target, you just sit back and go, "Oh my god, I can't believe that went in." You certainly appreciate what you're seeing out there from a fan perspective, really.
Zuniga: It's funny, since I'm a capo I usually have my back toward the field. When something goes on, I'm watching the big screen. I kind of hear a roar and commotion, and I saw the screen, I turn around and I didn't see anything, just the ball going in. I was like "What the f--- happened?" People were knocking me over almost. I was getting showered with beer. I was like, "What did I miss?" So I saw a little bit on the screen, and then I turned around and the ball goes in. ... But I was there. The atmosphere was good enough for me.
Kinnear: We had a video session on Tuesday after the game. We were watching and the ball went to Ashley Cole. He was about 40 yards out on the left-hand side and the question was, "What should Ashley do here?" Ibra was in the meeting and he said, "He should shoot." We all kind of giggled, "Ha, ha, ha," type of thing, and he goes, "No. Freeze the frame. Look where the goalie is." And damn right, Miller was on top of the box.
It's funny, you think Ibra just did that by chance, and he hit it beautifully, but he was watching the goalie. It shows what a smart, world-class player he is. He went on the field knowing this guy was off his line, and none of us knew that until the session.
I talked to him afterwards, and I said, "Did you know?" And he said, "Yeah," almost like it was an insulting question. "I was watching him and he was off his line the entire game." He knew. It wasn't just a look-up-and-hit. He had known going on the field that Miller had positioned himself high outside the goal, which a lot of people don't know. His preparation on the field, he wasn't just soaking up the atmosphere. He'd been there. He was watching the game, he was being ready for when he stepped on the field to be a good player, for lack of a better word. That was always interesting to me.
Ibra strikes again
At this point, the Galaxy were in full romp and in a plot twist that a Hollywood producer would have tossed away for being too cliché, Ibrahimovic drove home the dagger with a header from Cole's cross. The comeback was complete, and so was a memorable Galaxy victory.
Zlatan (to reporters postmatch): It's difficult to describe. I was getting, how do you say, the chicken skin [goosebumps]. From the third goal we scored, and then for the fourth was even more crazy because you are winning the game. After that I was just like, "Just stop the game now. It's enough. I don't want to feel anymore adrenaline."
Lletget: I think everyone knew that was coming. Whether it was him or someone else, I felt like the goal was always going to come. I felt like we were fitter, we were running more than them. Yeah, they could have scored a couple because when you play like that, you're at risk, but we always felt like we were going to win it, especially when it was 3-2.
Pontius: Complete and utter disbelief, but also joy and happiness. It's one of those things where I remember sitting back after the game and actually thinking, did this kind of happen? I've never been part of a comeback that big. It was a joyous locker room, guys were happy, especially just the way that rivalry started off, and it just set the mood for those later games.
Beitashour: At that point it was 3-3 and Marco Urena hit the post. So it wasn't like we were holding on for dear life. We still had momentum. At that point, we hadn't lost, hadn't given up any leads and there wasn't a moment where we said a point is good. We still wanted to win. We went for it, but unfortunately in the 91st minute, Ashley Cole gets in behind, whips in a good ball and I think we had two or three guys challenging for it, but Zlatan -- people don't realize how big he is. He has a presence in the air for sure.
The league loved it. Two rivals, first game against each, teams in the same city, it was an instant classic.
Geiger: It's one of those times when you referee games in big stadiums and it becomes deafening with the crowd that you have. [Dignity Health Sports Park], the way it's built sort of in a pit a little bit, you actually felt that in this game with the 27,000-plus fans you have there, it really became deafening on the field. To mount that comeback and have the winner in stoppage time, it was just a crazy atmosphere, everyone was so excited in the stands and on the field. It was really a memorable game to be a part of.
Zuniga: The same thing with the second goal. I was so hyped up, I was getting the crowd hyped up. The same thing, I hear a roar, and the ball goes in. But coming back like that, I didn't care. Not getting to see [the goals], I just wanted to beat them. To come back like that. But all afternoon, I was saying, "How did this happen? What happened?"
After the whistle
The final whistle witnessed the usual emotions. Euphoria for the Galaxy, disappointment for LAFC. But in retrospect, the moment is more poignant. Sigi Schmid, the Galaxy manager that day, was fired in September, replaced on an interim basis by Kinnear. Three months later Schmid died from complications from a heart condition.
Pontius: I got to see Sigi's celebration on the bench for Ibra's second goal, our fourth goal; complete jubilation. Sigi had a big smile on his face. It's something I won't forget. In the locker room he congratulated us and joked about us making it more difficult on ourselves, but he was definitely all smiles.
Kinnear: I think we sat down in the coach's office, had a postgame celebratory drink, whatever anyone wanted. We were happy we won, but we were laughing, shaking our heads at how crazy it was, and how Zlatan's impact on it was as heavy as it was.
Klein: I remember seeing Ibra on the field, and him almost not being impressed by it, like he had done it before. He asked me, "Is that what you wanted me to do?" I think everyone just felt a moment of excitement. It was so early in the season and that event and that moment is something that you'll never forget. I said, "It was decent" [laughs]. What are you going to say? [Ibrahimovic] is a guy who is fresh off the plane and rescues the game in the way that he did, in the spectacular fashion. It's not like he scored on two rebounds in the 6-yard box.
The match is one of those that can boost an entire league.
Kinnear: I think it meant a lot for the club because you're bringing in a player, and there were a lot of question marks because obviously he's coming off a big injury, but obviously his first impression was lasting last year because he scored 22 goals. And some of his goals, his 500th goal, you shook your head at that one. It was good too, I think, to beat your neighbor, your new neighbor who was getting a lot of attention. Bob has put together a very good team, and to beat them in the first game in the fashion that we did was crazy.
But even for the league, I think the league has those moments where it gains a lot of momentum and popularity, and that was one of those moments where it gave the league such a boost.
Beitashour: It wasn't really an indicator of, "Oh, they're going to use this comeback and victory to roll, and we're going to implode." It was kind of the opposite. We had a chance to win the West in the regular season and they struggled. We did really well when you look back at it for a first-year team.
Klein: I think it had a big impact on a number of levels for our club, our league and the rivalry between the Galaxy and LAFC. If you look at a personality like Zlatan coming in -- whether people want to say he's hurt, or he can't do this, he can't do that -- to have him provide that moment that was shown worldwide and was celebrated by everyone. It was a big thing for our league.
Vidrio: This game was more than a game. My family and I, we love going to the movies at the weekend. And obviously we had a game that day so we couldn't go to the movies. In actuality, we were definitely given a Hollywood show that afternoon. You couldn't write a better script. If someone would have told me MLS scripted it, in that moment I would have believed them. That game was more than Hollywood.