Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, two legends of European soccer, have shined all the same since making their respective journeys across the Atlantic Ocean, and each has produced one defining welcome-to-MLS moment that doubles as a unique microcosm for their greatness.
Rooney, on top of scoring more goals than all but one player in the history of the Premier League, is known for his workmanlike grit and knack for match-winning plays. The aura surrounding Ibrahimovic has only grown with his penchant for inconceivable goals and imperious expertise when the lights shine brightest.
Both Rooney and Ibrahimovic, on separate coasts at separate crucial times in the 2018 MLS season, have now served up spectacular moments for their new clubs, unique to themselves, just as they've been doing since they were teenagers.
Back in March, less than 48 hours after landing at LAX on a long flight from Europe, and mere months after serious surgery on his knee, Ibrahimovic was warming up on the touchline at the StubHub Center. Awaiting his MLS debut, Ibrahimovic's LA Galaxy were being embarrassed by new rivals LAFC in the first edition of El Tráfico. The Galaxy had pulled a goal back to make it 3-1 by the time the substitution board flashed No. 9 in green, signaling the dawning of the Ibrahimovic-era in Los Angeles.
With that first Galaxy goal, there was an inevitable feeling that Ibrahimovic would do something to rectify this impossible situation – no matter the shape of his knees, his fitness nor how little time he had to prepare for the match. Two minutes after he got on the field, teammate Chris Pontius scored to put the Galaxy within immediate striking distance at 3-2.
Minutes later, in a moment that instantaneously went down in league folklore, Ibrahimovic scored what may be the goal of the season from 40 yards out on a half-volley, the way only Ibrahimovic could have the idea, audacity and ability to execute. Of course he knew exactly how to properly celebrate.
"COME ON! OH, COME ON!" Screamed FS1 broadcaster John Strong as the strike dipped over Tyler Miller. It's all he needed to say.
Ibrahimovic had been producing various golazos, similarly unimaginable, throughout his career for a handful of Europe's best clubs. That March afternoon proved to be his defining welcome-to-MLS moment.
Rooney wouldn't make his MLS debut for another four months and had to wait a few more games for that defining moment, but when it came this past Sunday night it proved to be just as special.
As D.C. United grappled with struggling Orlando City SC at brand new Audi Field in desperate need of all three points, United were level 2-2 with the 10-man Lions deep into stoppage time. D.C. won a corner and keeper David Ousted made the full-field journey to join his teammates in the 18-yard box, frantically searching for a game-winning goal to keep their slim playoff hopes alive.
Orlando cleared the corner and sprung what appeared to be a free run at D.C.'s empty net. But Rooney seeped out of the penalty area ahead of the corner being taken and pushed himself into a full sprint halfway down the field to chase down Will Johnson. He won a perfectly timed tackle and somehow kept the ball in play, ran another 15 yards with the ball and delivered a ludicrous, pinpoint diagonal cross for Luciano Acosta to head towards the back post, handing D.C. a 3-2 win in the sixth minute of stoppage time.
Like with Ibrahimovic against LAFC, it was the type of thing that Rooney had done year-in, year-out for Manchester United, leading his club to trophy after trophy. He never shied away from a tackle, never shirked defensive duties, and was a complete forward, equally capable of scoring a brilliant goal or supplying a wonderful assist. It was an incredibly Rooney-specific play.
Both players lifted their clubs when they were most in need; since Ibrahimovic's debut, last season's bottom-of-the-league Galaxy have been one of the top teams in the Western Conference. As for D.C., time will tell if Rooney's match-winning sequence will push the team up the table and into the playoffs, but the galvanizing feeling is impossible to ignore. Without it, United would have picked up a disappointing point when they needed all three. Now, the chase for a playoff spot is on.
Matthew Doyle put it best in his Armchair Analyst: All 23 MLS teams ranked by tier – v3.0 (final version!): "There is always the risk, when signing an older DP who's done just about everything there is to do in the world of soccer, that they don't really care as much as they could/should/need to.
"Wayne Rooney, on that play, took that notion, strangled it and buried it 30 feet underground."
We all knew that Rooney and Ibrahimovic had the quality to make a difference for their new clubs. Since making their debuts, there are no questions that the two hugely-decorated veterans still have an insatiable hunger.
It'll be quite difficult for each to top those plays. Then again, they've made careers out of defying rational expectations.