Zlatan Ibrahimovic - LA Galaxy - shields the ball from Walker Zimmerman - LAFC

The LA Galaxy still sit below the playoff line after Wednesday night’s 2-1 loss to the Colorado Rapids. Even so, the Galaxy should still make the playoffs. They have five games left — three are at home, and four are against non-playoff teams.

If they don’t, however, there’s no way to mince words about their season: It would be the biggest failure in league history.

The closest competitor: the 2008 LA Galaxy. David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Greg Vanney and Edson Buddle, led by manager Ruud Gullit, missed the playoffs by six points. This year would be worse. (Next up, probably 2018 Toronto FC, although TFC reached the 2018 Concacaf Champions League final so they get a bit of leniency.)

If you’re feeling like there have been a lot of “craziest X in league history”... yeah, you aren’t wrong. There is more money invested in the league than ever; there are more fans paying attention than ever; the stakes are higher than ever. 

The LA Galaxy have Zlatan Ibrahimovic on their team; they have Cristian Pavon, who started for Argentina at the World Cup 12 months ago on their team; they have Jonathan dos Santos, a regular for the Mexico national neam; they have Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who won two Argentine SuperLiga titles with Boca Juniors and managed in a Copa Libertadores Final in 2018, as their manager. They have Dennis te Kloese, who recently acted as the director of national teams for the Mexican Football Federation, as the GM. 

And that team is below the playoff line. That team could finish 8th in the Western Conference. They are 6-12-2 since the start of May. 

Some positivity — there’s a version of this story that says the Galaxy have been getting better lately. They played down a man for 85 minutes against the Seattle Sounders and secured a point; they punched LAFC in the nose and went up two goals inside 20 minutes; the loss to Colorado happened without dos Santos or Sebastien Lletget. Lletget, in particular, has been key. The Galaxy have looked better since inserting him as a box-to-box midfielder for the win over FC Dallas on August 14th. 

But there’s also concern that there’s a problem they haven’t yet addressed. And it’s the conversation no coach in his right mind would want to have.

Last week, I wrote about the challenge of integrating a star player into a cohesive team unit. Nobody has bigger headaches with it than the Galaxy. Zlatan is… Zlatan. He’s unstoppable when the ball is on his foot or traveling toward his head. But he’s also 37 years old and has limitations. 

Zlatan doesn’t cover the ground that almost every other center striker in the world supplies. He doesn’t move laterally to cut out passing lanes; he doesn’t close the ball down in transition; he doesn’t make off-the-ball runs that pull defenders out of position. He picks his battles, as a 37-year-old should. When he engages in a soccer battle, he usually wins. Unfortunately, though, he only gets the ball on his foot for less than a minute a game. The other 89 minutes, he often leaves the Galaxy exposed.

LA have used a 4-3-3 almost all season, with Zlatan as the lone striker. They might have to rethink it. In 2018, interim manager Dom Kinnear switched to a 4-4-2 and used Ola Kamara next to Zlatan. They finished the year 3-1-1 (but lost at home to Houston on Decision Day and missed the playoffs). Kamara did the little things off the ball that made the game easier for everyone else. Uriel Antuna could do something similar this year.

The weird, somewhat-annoying part of this is that it might not matter. If the Galaxy squeeze into the playoffs — and failure to do so would be even more of an epic failure given their remaining schedule — they should still be considered a main contender. There isn’t a single matchup, even if the Galaxy are on the road, in which the Galaxy would be definitive underdogs. Look no further than their games against LAFC

The Galaxy are as frustrating a team as you’ll ever watch. With it will come one of the most dramatic late season finishes the league has ever seen.

The Galaxy should make the playoffs still. If they do, they should be a favorite to win MLS Cup. But they shouldn’t have left it this close to begin with, so the only thing we know for sure is what’s on the line: If the Galaxy don’t make the playoffs, it would be unprecedented failure.