CARSON, Calif. -- The LA Galaxy face a number of critical questions as they head into a premature offseason after letting the Audi 2018 MLS Cup Playoffs slip away with Sunday's fall-from-ahead loss at home to the Houston Dynamo.
Foremost among them: Whither Zlatan?
There are bigger issues, to be sure, after successive failures to reach MLS's postseason, but none as sexy as whether Zlatan Ibrahimovic — after a highlight-reel campaign dotted with 22 goals, 10 assists and huge crowds everywhere — will spend a second year in sunny Southern California.
The Swedish striker's thoughts on the matter after the Dynamo's 3-2 triumph at StubHub Center is anyone's guess. He was gone when LA's locker room was opened to the media moments after Dominic Kinnear's final team talk of the season, but Ibrahimovic several times over the last few months has proclaimed his love of Los Angeles, MLS and playing for the Galaxy while pointedly not promising to return in 2019 despite signing a two-year contract in March.
He's gone now, his empty locker suggested, but will we see him again? Chris Klein thinks so. Asked whether he believed Ibrahimovic would be back next season, the Galaxy's president said, “I do. Yeah.”
“Good guy, quality guy, and certainly what he produced on the field is something that we liked,” said Klein, a former MLS winger. “We want to get through this [disappointment], and I will definitely sit down with him and have a conversation and see where we are.”
Klein and Co. must also make a decision on a head coach — remove “interim” from Kinnear's title or start over with someone new — while assessing the roster and deciding how much turnover is required to turn things around. These are far more complex issues for the Galaxy, who need to take a deeper look within as they choose their path forward.
Do they stick with a the “superstar” model, in place since David Beckham arrived 11 years ago, building around the skills of a couple of big-name players? Or do they become more organic, constructing a side of complementary players — think Sporting Kansas City or FC Dallas — sans huge attractions.
“It's a valid question, and that needs to come out of this process,” Klein told MLSsoccer.com. “That needs to be clearly defined and communicated and dictated by [the club's brain trust]. I don't think you can say that a Zlatan or a Wayne Rooney defines the culture of the club. It's one player, but it's what you build around them, certainly. That will be part of this process, also.”
Ibrahimovic is 37, but he was spectacular this year — also in the locker room and on the training field — and his presence would give the Galaxy a chance next year, if they can avoid the kind of injury crises that have dogged them the past two seasons and solidify things at the back.
There's a decent core to build around, and all three Designated Players — Giovani dos Santos, Romain Alessandrini and Jonathan dos Santos — are under contract for next year. Alessandrini and Jonathan have been vital to the Galaxy, but Gio, the bigger name, has been inconsistent since arriving in 2015, and much of this season was lost to repeated muscle injuries, none major but all debilitating.
Asked about Gio, Klein was more circumspect -- and more general.
“We have to evaluate everything,” he said. “We have to take a look with the coach and see what's important and how they want to play. That's not something we would answer at this point.”
Kinnear, who guided Houston to two MLS Cup titles and was Frank Yallop's assistant when San Jose won their two championships, might have done enough to keep the reins — he brought an organization to the team that shored up much of what wasn't working defensively — but LA have been linked to Boca Juniors coach (and former Columbus Crew SC star) Guillermo Barros Schelotto and former Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter, among others.
The players would like to see Kinnear stick around.
“It's been a difficult situation for him ...,” captain Ashley Cole said, “but the way he conducted himself, the way he got on with it, changed kind of the mentality of this team, the philosophy of how we want to do things, how we want to play. The intensity in training got better.
“I really hope that they keep him, because what he's shown in the few games he's been here, he's proved he good enough to [have the Galaxy again contending for trophies]. Players love him. Everyone loves him. I hope they consider him to be a good option, because what he got out of the guys, I think he got out the best.”
Kinnear, whose family is still based in the Bay Area, has declined to acknowledge if he has interest in continuing as head coach, saying that his focus was solely on the task at hand and then, with the season finished, that it was “a question for another day.”
“That stuff, for me, isn't even in the back of my mind right now,” he said Sunday. “My feelings are with the team and the front office and the fans. It's a great club, as you know.”
Klein said it was possible Kinnear would return.
“His name's on the list, and he's going to be part of that process,” Klein said. “I went to Dom early and said, 'We're interviewing,' and he said, '100 percent my focus is on getting this team into the playoffs.' So now that that has been decided, we'll take a breath and certainly [talk] with him as well.
“He represented himself very well and was put in a difficult situation and came through. OK, a little short, but the integrity and character of that man is unquestioned.”