CARSON, Calif. – Josef Martinez seemed to wrap up Major League Soccer's MVP race by setting a new goalscoring standard. But if the LA Galaxy can navigate a path into the postseason, he might have some real competition for the award.
The Galaxy looked dead a couple of weeks ago. Yet successive 3-0 romps over the Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps have them just two points back of sixth-place Real Salt Lake with three games to go.
The key figure – in nearly every facet, for one of MLS's flagship clubs – is Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
If LA make it, is the Swedish superstar the league’s true most valuable player? Maybe so.
He's scored 20 goals with nine assists in 24 games, is averaging nearly a goal every 90 minutes. Only Martinez, who has netted 30 goals in 31 matches, averages more. And Ibrahimovic has done so most spectacularly, scoring unfathomable goals, laying off breathtaking balls for teammates to finish and generally living up to his claim that he is a true god of the sport.
He contributes to a goal, either by hitting the net himself or feeding someone who does, at a greater rate than does Martinez – 1.39 every 90 minutes to the Atlanta United star's 1.20 – has seven game-winners in the nine victories he's played in, and he doesn't get too many of his goals from the penalty spot, just three to Martinez's seven.
“If he can bring us to the playoffs, in this situation we're in – we've been in five or six games that are must-win – and if we do that, and he continues to score, I think that's a big one for the MVP,” Ibrahimovic's strike partner Ola Kamara told MLSsoccer.com following the Galaxy's training session Wednesday at StubHub Center.
“Martinez has been incredible, too. But I think, especially in the position that we are, and if he continues scoring and we get to the playoffs, he should be there.”
Even without the captain's armband, Ibra is the Galaxy's unquestioned leader, carrying a side that has struggled most of the season with injuries, chemistry issues and horrid defensive play to the verge of a playoff spot that appeared out of reach until, well, now.
“[Ibrahimovic] should be part of the conversation, 100 percent,” Galaxy interim head coach Dominic Kinnear said.“He's a great player for us. He's a game-winner.
“He's important for the league, as well,” Kinnear added, noting how much attendance and attention he draws to LA’s away games. “I think his influence across the league is pretty incredible.”
Ibrahimovic, who turned 37 Wednesday, has been as entertaining off the field as on it. His media sessions are often hilarious, and he usually lives up to his prodigious boasts. But it's the drive he displays and a team-first ethos that's most impressed his teammates.
“He's a winner, and he demands a lot,” Kamara said. “Especially in the games where it's must-win in the clinch, I think it triggers a lot in us. The whole team is feeling it's important now, but he's pushing us to the next level, I think.”
Ibrahimovic has certainly got the numbers, but it's the quality of his play all over the field, and his impact in training and within the locker room, that argues most strongly for his candidacy.
He introduced himself to MLS by spearheading a stunning comeback from three goals down to topple crosstown rivals LAFC, 4-3, in March. He's scored several beauties, perhaps none as nice as his 500th career goal, a spinning volley in defeat a few weeks ago at Toronto FC.
If he can do something similar on Saturday at Sporting Kansas City (8:30 pm ET | TV and streaming info), next weekend at Minnesota United and in the regular-season finale at StubHub against Houston, he might have what it takes to trump Martinez.
“I came here to play, I came here to win, and I want to win,” Zlatan said Wednesday. “That is my mentality. That is my DNA. And that is what I want. That is what I work very hard for.
“Today I was supposed to do half-training. I didn't want. I did the full training, because that's me. I want to work and I don't need to [proclaim] myself in these matters. You just have to ask the coach and teammates who I am, what I do, to arrive where I want to arrive. For me, I have to leave a stamp where I come, and that's what I did [at the clubs I've played for]. And my plan is to leave it here, also.”
Whether that's deserving of the MVP award is up to voters among the clubs and in the media. Ibrahimovic calls it “just an extra bonus,” one he doesn't really covet.
“It's not my main focus. I don't want it if we don't win the whole thing,” he said. “I prefer my team to come in the playoffs, win the big trophy, and whatever after that is just a bonus.”
A nice bonus, though, right?
“My bonus,” he replied, “is if I bring my team to playoffs, because I promised them to win the first day we came here in the training [back in March]. I said we will win. So making [the] playoffs and make them win, and I see that happen, I see that [joy] in their faces, that is my satisfaction, not me [as] MVP.
“It's not about me. It's about everybody.”