Los Angeles Galaxy fans could get their first glimpse of Zlatan Ibrahimovic on Saturday as the Major League Soccer side gears up for a city derby with expansion team Los Angeles FC.
Saturday’s clash — dubbed “El Trafico” in a nod to the California metropolis’s eternally gridlocked streets — has been given an added edge by the Galaxy’s capture of Ibrahimovic.
The 36-year-old Swedish striker’s move to MLS from Manchester United was confirmed last week, with Ibrahimovic swiftly vowing to reignite the Galaxy’s fortunes after they finished bottom of the league last season.
Ibrahimovic, who has not played since appearing for United in a 2-2 draw with Burnley in December, was only due to arrive in Los Angeles on Thursday, giving him little time to acclimatise to his new surroundings.
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However the Galaxy have pointedly stated that Ibrahimovic is available for Staturday’s game at the Stubhub Center.
Galaxy manager Sigi Schmid hinted that Ibrahimovic may well feature, fuelling the hype about the striker by stating this week that he is “not a normal, mortal human.”
“You’re talking about Zlatan Ibrahimovic,” Schmid said. “You’re not talking about a normal, mortal human. I’m sure he’ll tell you the same.
“He’s a competitor. He loves to compete and he loves challenges. If you ask me is he 90 minutes fit for Saturday, no. But will he play a role in the game? Quite possibly.”
Ibrahimovic is the latest in a long line of European stars to head to MLS at the tail-end of their careers, following in the footsteps of David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, Thierry Henry and Frank Lampard.
However Ibrahimovic, who is taking a massive pay cut to play in the US, insists he is determined to help the most successful team in MLS history return to their former glory.
“I decided to sign with Galaxy because I think it’s the right place for me,” he said on the club’s website.
“I think I have a lot to give, I can help them a lot. It’s the best team in the US. There were no doubts.”
However it remains to be seen what version of the striker, who accumulated 31 winners medals during a glittering career in Europe, will arrive in California.
Ibrahimovic has played only seven times since a serious knee injury cut short his Manchester United career.
While the broad technical level of MLS is a notch below what Ibrahimovic has been accustomed to, the league remains a physically demanding arena.
“Is he the physical force who dominated the top levels of the game for well over a decade?” ESPN soccer writer Jeff Carlisle asked. “Or is LA getting a washed-up 36-year-old forward who isn’t even a year removed from a devastating knee injury, and can no longer rely on his once-prodigious physical gifts?”
Ibrahimovic’s arrival also comes at a time when many MLS clubs are eschewing veteran European players past their prime and instead looking to recruit young, South American talent instead.
LAFC are a case in point, with Uruguayan striker Diego Rossi making an impressive start to his MLS career with a goal on his debut. LAFC have also enjoyed a smooth start to life in the league, winning both of their opening games in the Western Conference.
LAFC coach Bob Bradley however is adamant that Ibrahimovic’s arrival is a plus for MLS, and his team’s nascent rivalry with Galaxy.
“It makes everything bigger,” Bradley told Sports Illustrated.
“Because look at what he’s done in his career. He’s a huge personality, and obviously on the field with the things he can do. And so there will always be questions when a player comes to the league and he’s a little bit older. But you can’t take anything away from Ibra and his career, man.”