The MLS edition of the Zlatan Ibrahimovic thrill ride screeched to a halt on Sunday with a 3-2 come-from-ahead loss to the Houston Dynamo on Decision Day presented by AT&T. A win, and the Galaxy would've stolen a playoff appearance; the defeat means they watch for a second consecutive offseason.
It’s a disappointing end to a year in which Zlatan staked a late-breaking claim toward being MVP. He finished with 22 goals and 10 assists in 26 games (23 starts), able to bring the Galaxy along from worst in the league last year to the verge of the 2018 postseason. This ending, bitter as it is for Zlatan and his teammates, illustrates not only his greatness as a player but also the limits of individual brilliance in a team sport, how one spectacular player can’t fix systematic problems of the team.
Ibra announced himself to MLS with a spectacular volley in the 76th minute to tie the inaugural edition of El Tráfico. He has always billed himself as someone less human, and more of a lion, or when he’s feeling really arrogant, as a god. His first strike in the league, coming off an ACL injury and at the age of 37, was so ridiculous that there was little reason to disagree that he seemed more than an ordinary human. Almost to set the bar even higher for himself, he followed up the volley with a 91st-minute game-winner.
Zlatan can sometimes sound like a comic book character. He talks in third person and always claims the absurd, but then when he does do the supposedly absurd, it makes one feel ashamed of doubting him. When I see him putting on his performance of the godly soccer player, I think of Black Adam in Superman/Shazam!: The Return of Black Adam when Adam said, “If I have the powers of the gods, then I am not a god myself? Should I not be treated as such?”
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As arrogant as Adam’s statement was, it was also a declaration that was based off insecurity. He had powers like a god, but he wasn’t one. He was a human playing the part, and he was well aware that as a human he was limited and could lose all of that ability at any time.
Zlatan is wonderful – he’s one of the best players to ever grace the field – but as much as he claims to be a god, he’s a human being that can only change the fortunes of a team so much. He conquered Europe, but he conquered Europe while leading some of the best teams in the world. He won trophies at Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain. His quality isn’t a product of the teams that he’s played for, as can be seen from his time in the Galaxy, but he’s always had a team that was at least capable of challenging for trophies, which allowed him to take them the rest of the way.
Before the game against the Dynamo, the Galaxy had four games in which they couldn’t slip: They beat Seattle and Vancouver, each by 3-0; they drew Sporting KC, 1-1; and then beat Minnesota United 3-1. Zlatan scored five goals in those four games. He was a god.
Against the Dynamo, Ibrahimovic was at his most human. He failed to score or to assist either Galaxy goal. In a game rare in the context of this season, Zlatan needed his teammates to get over the line without him leading the way. For the first half, it seemed like it a possibility on the strength of Ola Kamara's brace. All they needed was to not collapse. For 45 minutes.
In those next 45 minutes, all the systematic issues Zlatan had papered over during the season came back to haunt LA. The defensive fragility revealed itself under pressure. Three goals conceded made all the gains of the last five games for naught.
The first goal came from Romell Quioto making two defenders dance in the box before beating the goalkeeper near post. The second came from a penalty: Romain Alessandrini, for some reason, decided to kick A.J. DeLaGarza on the side of his torso while the ball was in the air. And the third was Mauro Manotas somehow making a run in the center of the box and touching a low cross in, while he was surrounded by three defenders. All three blamed each other after for Manotos’ unimpeded run and goal. David Bingham, the LA goalkeeper, didn’t even attempt to dive for the ball.
Zlatan has proven a great addition for the Galaxy, as he would have been for any other team. He is an incredible player, but the Galaxy's failure to reach the playoffs was collective. If the Galaxy want to be successful again, if they want to get the full Zlatan experience – which means, to be clear, the winning of trophies – they need to build a platform for him that will make it possible. Because right now, all they have is Zlatan, and as much as he claims otherwise, he is but human.