LOS ANGELES — In the 8th minute of Friday night’s 3-2 victory over LAFC, the LA Galaxy’s Jonathan Dos Santos narrowly squeezed his pass away before Latif Blessing could close him down. Eddie Segura managed to step in front of Zlatan Ibrahimovic to win the header, but it was a poor one. Jordan Harvey slipped as the unmistakable Swede dipped behind both of them to receive a Julian Araujo pass.
Only a few minutes earlier Carlos Vela, the MLS MVP favorite and league-leading scorer, had just emphatically slotted home his penalty. LAFC supporters around Dignity Health Sports Park were in full voice. The best team in the league locked ready to collect their first three points in Carson.
But then Ibra found himself sandwiched between Eduard Atuesta and Segura as he tracked back. Almost impossibly, he chested the ball mid-sprint, delicately lifted it over Atuesta, let it bounce just once and smashed a volley past Tyler Miller.
Though that phenomenal first goal only set the scene for the hat trick to come, the importance of its timing — just after the runaway league leaders had gone up a goal — can’t be overstated. For LAFC boss Bob Bradley, the manner the Galaxy No. 9 received the opportunity wasn’t good enough from his squad.
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“As a team we dropped off too much, that’s not the way we defend,” the coach said of the first goal in his postgame comments. “You can’t win them all but when the ball comes loose as a pack, we’ve got to be stronger to push towards him and deal with the play faster and so we backed off a little bit and gave him a little room.”
After scoring the equalizer, the Swede ran directly and aggressively gestured toward Bradley, putting his intensity on full display for the visiting coach.
“He scores three goals tonight, so I’m not getting into the rest,” Bradley said when asked about the Ibrahimovic’s conduct. “As a team, for us, there are times you play against certain teams and there’s a guy that is a strong personality and we’ve got to continue to have a way to take our football and make it so good and so strong that we don’t, at the end of the day, have to deal with all sorts of questions about him.”
LAFC players gave Ibra credit for his performance but Walker Zimmerman felt they could have defended better against the Galaxy captain.
“I don’t think we did a good job of first balls and balls he was able to bring down,” said Zimmerman who went the full 90. “We didn’t do a good job of that, and again, that’s one of his strengths. Certainly going to look at how we are going to deal with that next time. We eliminated a lot of opportunities to be honest, I think they probably had 4-5 shots, Tyler [Miller] had two big saves early and then after that, kind of nothing but the goals. Again, just being a little more aggressive, maybe just stepping up a little bit sooner, trying to block those shots.”
In the end, Ibra was able to turn those small spaces LAFC afforded him and turn it into a hat trick and three points against the Galaxy's city rivals.
Despite the incredible performance, the Galaxy remain a full nine points behind LAFC in the Western Conference, and there was the sense among all the players outside the visiting locker room for this year’s defeat at Carson, that this match and the Swede’s performance wouldn’t dent the Black & Gold’s stellar season.
Immediately following the match and his late second-goal, LAFC captain Carlos Vela went straight over to the visiting LAFC supporters to thank them. Bob Bradley joined his star player and putting his arm around him, the two shared words.
“We know it was a hard loss,” said Vela of their conversation. “We talk about, we’re still first, and we have to keep that place, we have to forget this game and continue in our level.”
Vela brought up the defending MLS Cup champions, Atlanta United, who will visit the LAFC in a week’s time as a reminder that as much as Ibra was able to rise to the occasion, the season goes on.
“We want to be [league] leaders so we have to keep pushing, keep working and [there’s] no other way to be a good team.”