Locker buddies for the night, for just one night. Inextricably woven as centerpieces of the 2019 MLS season, their lockers took that abstract concept and made it simplistically tangible.
It was a moment perfect for social media.
— Major League Soccer (@MLS) July 31, 2019
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It was fitting. All season, all month, all week leading up to the All-Star Game, Zlatan and Vela dominated the conversation. Two of MLS’s alpha stars, together against Atletico Madrid.
"It’s been an absolute joy to be given a little exposure to world-class players," All-Star head coach James O’Connor said after the game. "The abiding memory for me dealing with those is just how down to earth those two gentlemen are. Very, very professional."
So good, yet so different
In the buildup to July's El Trafico, Zlatan vs. Vela gripped the league as a legitimately divisive conversation. One was on pace to set a new league record for goals and tied for first in assists, all while spearheading a team on pace to set a new league record for points. The other was … well, Zlatan needs no introduction or resume.
By now, you know the war of words. Ibrahimovic defiantly asserted he was by far the superior player, while Vela respectfully debunked that. It sparked the debate and was a microcosm of why this discussion is so enthralling, as their dominant traits are so divergent.
Like Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo, they're so different, yet so similar by way of excellence. Ibrahimovic is the brash, target forward who scowls all game long, then scores goals with both panache and brute force. Vela is the quieter, classy winger with a disarming smile and demeanor, and a lethal left foot. Vela's an assassin; Ibrahimovic is a tank.
All-Star collision course
The back-and-forth between the players is not a common occurrence in MLS or in any league for that matter. So it's no surprise that the league's two dominant stars, leaders of two of the league’s best teams in one of the world's biggest cities, dominated headlines as the cream of the MLS crop gathered in Orlando. And so the questions persisted: How could both possibly share a locker after what happened? Could they potentially line up side-by-side on the field? Were the other stars on Team Zlatan or Team Vela?
It was Vela and Zlatan, then there was everybody else. Two alphas.
On an All-Star team comprised of multiple players who wear No. 10 and No. 9 for their clubs, the famous shirt numbers went to Vela and Ibrahimovic. Alejandro Pozuelo, Nico Lodeiro, Wayne Rooney, Pity Martinez and Maxi Moralez all had to ditch their preferred kit number.
It was what we all wanted to see in the All-Star Game, Ibrahimovic and Vela playing together. When the starting lineup was announced, it was their interactions we wanted, their combination play.
“I could see Carlos very intentional about trying to ... we wanted to try to get Zlatan at the back post,” O’Connor said. “We thought there was an opportunity there and Carlos was very intentional about picking him out.”
The result didn’t come, neither by production nor pizzazz, in the 30 minutes these two megastars were teammates. Link-up play wasn’t entirely sharp and there were few moments of true interaction between the duo. In a flash, it was over. Thirty minutes was all there was to be had and there was no goal to show for it, no big moment on the field. A rarity for each in 2019.
And there was no big moment off it, either. No incendiary pronouncements. In fact, after the All-Stars' 3-0 loss to Atleti, Ibrahimovic left the locker room before media arrived, while Vela didn’t breach the topic.
The next chapter
Did the All-Star experience serve to defuse any tension between the two?
Vela and Ibrahimovic both downplayed the idea of a personal rivalry at every turn, seeming more disinterested with every passing question. No air to clear, Vela insisted. Nothing personal, Zlatan added. They even passed the ball to one another in the match.
But it's tough to envision how they'll ever shake the head-to-head, at least in 2019. Their paths are set to cross again in the next El Trafico during Heineken Rivalry Week and they'll likely both be in the mix for the Western Conference crown come playoff time. And that's not to mention the Audi Golden Boot race (Vela is at 22 goals, Zlatan is at 16).
“I thought their attitude and application was tremendous,” O’Connor continued. “I think a lot has been made of Carlos and Zlatan, but there’s no problems. Two standout guys. I just really enjoyed the experience of spending a little bit of time with both of them.”
Sure, there are no problems. But two of the fiercest competitors and dominant players in the league are not done one-upping one another just yet.