Stejskal: The inside story of how the LA Galaxy landed Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Zlatan Ibrahimovic - generic primary image

The LA Galaxy had come close to signing Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the past.

They’d been in touch with the Swede on and off for the better part of the last three years, nearly landing him in 2017 before a major knee injury he suffered last April derailed any talk of the then-Manchester United striker trading the Red Devils for the City of Angels.

As Ibrahimovic rehabbed, LA kept the flame burning. They remained in contact with the superstar, periodically checking in on him until, about four months ago, just as he was first returning from his ruptured ACL, he let the Galaxy know that he thought the time was right for him to move to MLS.

LA wanted him, but Galaxy president Chris Klein told on Monday that the club initially thought Ibrahimovic wouldn’t move until the summer. He was under contract with Manchester United through the end of the English Premier League season in May and, at the time, was working his way back into the club’s regular rotation following his initial return from injury in November.

But a setback – after playing in seven matches from Nov. 18 to Dec. 26, he missed all of January and much of February to recover further from his initial injury – combined with Manchester United falling out of contention in the EPL and UEFA Champions League opened the door for LA to land him sooner. Negotiations began in earnest a few weeks back, with Manchester United confirming Thursday that they’d terminated Ibrahimovic’s contract, making him a free agent and allowing the Galaxy to announce on Friday that they’d signed him to a two-year deal using Targeted Allocation Money.

It’s by far the biggest signing in an offseason of change in LA, who endured the worst season in club history last year when they finished tied for last in MLS with just 32 points.

“It needed to make sense,” Klein said. “We didn’t put on a piece of paper ‘Sign one of the biggest names in the world for TAM’ and think that will cure all of our problems. We knew that it needed a systematic approach, that it needed some additional quality signings in the offseason and to build some stability in the team. Just take that next step forward, that was the objective for us. And when the opportunity presented itself with Zlatan, we evaluated it from all sides and decided it was the right thing to do.”

The Galaxy will reportedly pay Ibrahimovic $1.5 million per season during his deal. Signing him at that price was the only feasible way for LA to land the 36-year-old. The Galaxy already have the league maximum of three Designated Players on their roster in Giovani and Jonathan dos Santos and Romain Alessandrini. The most they could spend without moving one of that trio was $1.5 million per year, the maximum amount MLS allows to be paid to players whose salaries are bought down using TAM.

That’s not chump change, but it is a serious bargain for Ibrahimovic, who was reportedly making several times that salary at Manchester United. The Galaxy made sure to leave that money available while rebuilding their roster this offseason, and Klein said that Ibrahimovic, who will no doubt look to line up several major US endorsement deals in LA, was eager to accept when offered.  

“I can’t say enough about the offseason that we had and making so many changes with [head coach] Sigi [Schmid] and [VP of soccer operations] Pete [Vagenas] and what our entire soccer operations group did to build the team and to leave room to be able to bring a player like Ibra in,” Klein said. “To have him come in as a TAM player, it didn’t even really take convincing. He wanted to come and he had the insight and the wherewithal to understand that he didn’t want to blow up our team to do it. And doing that, you hear all the time in sports that it’s not about the money, it usually is about the money. But with him it wasn’t.”

The Galaxy don’t yet know when Ibrahimovic will land in LA, but Klein indicated that his specific arrival date should be sorted out by Tuesday or Wednesday. He added that it’s “not for sure” that Ibrahimovic will head from Europe to California this week, but he also wouldn’t rule him out of the Galaxy’s first-ever match against expansion club LAFC on Saturday at the StubHub Center (3 pm ET, FOX).

Regardless of if he takes the field during the inaugural meeting between the LA clubs, Ibrahimovic’s addition will likely be the final major one made by the Galaxy this year. Klein said that if the club hasn't already spent all of its TAM for 2018, it's close to doing so. That leaves little room for LA to make another big signing unless they first trade or sell someone currently on their roster.

That could be an issue for a team that’s slightly unbalanced. The Galaxy have a very high-powered attack with Ibrahimovic, the dos Santos brothers, Alessandrini and striker Ola Kamara, but their defense is lacking in similar star power and is coming off a season in which they conceded 67 goals, second-worst in MLS.

LA re-shaped their backline in recent months, following up their September signing of center back Michael Ciani by acquiring Norwegian center back Jorgen Skjelvik, Venezuelan right back Rolf Feltscher and former San Jose goalkeeper David Bingham while re-signing left back Ashley Cole in the winter. The group has started solidly, allowing just three goals through three games, but it’s an open question whether they’ll hold firm when paired with a group of attackers not known for their defensive work.

For now, though, Klein and LA aren’t worried about that. They know they have a long way to go to right the wrongs of 2017, but with Ibrahimovic on board, they’re feeling good about where they’re headed.  

“There’s a lot of optimism both in our front office and within our soccer operations group and with our players and with our fans,” he said. “We know we have a long, long way to go. We’re three games into a 34-game season. No one goes undefeated in our league, no one stays at the top for the entire time. We know that challenges lie ahead, but we’re certainly prepared for those and we feel good about the group that we have.”