CARSON, Calif. – Zlatan Ibrahimovic will be the pivotal figure, of course, as the LA Galaxy make their first Audi MLS Cup Playoffs appearance in three years Sunday evening at Minnesota United FC (8:30 pm ET | ESPN in US; TVAS, TSN4 in Canada).
If the home side wins, is that the end of the Swedish superstar's Major League Soccer adventure?
“Could be, could be,” acknowledges Ibrahimovic, who in two seasons with LA has netted 53 goals in 56 regular-season games and prodded the club to the edge of last year's MLS playoffs and, with help from summer signing Cristian Pavon, into the 14-team field this season.
He renegotiated his contract following last season to return as a Designated Player and has said he won't decide what he's doing next year until the current campaign is done.
The expectation is that this playoff run, with the Galaxy seeking a record sixth MLS Cup triumph, will be Ibrahimovic's swan song. He has made it clear he'd like to retire with hometown club Malmö FF, with which he joined the academy at 13 and began his pro career at 17.
Nobody will come out and say so, but the restructuring of the team under general manager Dennis te Kloese, who joined the Galaxy last December, is set to continue next season, and Ibrahimovic, at an advanced age, is not the future.
“I think the way is very clear ...,” head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said after LA's training session Thursday morning at Dignity Health Sports Park. “The future of the Galaxy or the future of Zlatan, I think it's very clear. You can imagine.”
After building the roster under Bruce Arena largely around American players and primarily European imports, the Galaxy have looked to Latin America far more since hiring Te Kloese, a Dutchman who has spent most of his career in Mexico, and Schelotto, an Argentine coach who came to LA from a stint in charge of Boca Juniors, the club with which he's most associated.
LA always have had a Latino component — Jorge Campos, Mauricio Cienfuegos and Eduardo Hurtado were the biggest names on the first Galaxy team, in 1996 – and this year added several players from Latin America. The chief pickups have been the Argentine midfielders Pavon and Favio Alvarez and Mexican winger Uriel Antuna, all acquired on loan deals; defenders Diego Polenta from Uruguay and Giancarlo Gonzalez from Costa Rica; and Mexican-American midfielder Joe Corona, who had spent his professional career in Liga MX.
The midfield is anchored by Mexican star Jonathan dos Santos, and the two most promising youngsters — right back Julian Araujo and attacking midfielder Efrain Alvarez, both from California — are eligible for Mexico's national team. Alvarez plays for El Tri's U-17 team.
Te Kloese last month talked about how MLS roster regulations require clubs to build “step by step.” Has the emphasis on Latino players been about what's available or is it a philosophical shift?
“I think for Guillermo, working in Argentina and knowing very well that market, it is obviously of some certain trust level and comfort level to work with some players that he knows or has seen or has already scouted, and it's a great market,” Te Kloese told Soccer America. “From my part it's a little bit the same, and I hope to balance it out between [players from] USA and Mexico or Europe.
“In the end, our identity for the Galaxy should grow into something which is diverse and that reflects our city, which is diverse. And even though we have a South American coaching staff, I don't think that going forward every player needs to come from South America. ... There is nothing geared towards that [a player] needs to be Hispanic. I think we need to be good. I think we need to be competitive and, little by little, live up to the rich history that the Galaxy has.”
Te Kloese said discussions with Ibrahimovic, who scored 30 goals with seven assists — 64 percent of the club's tallies — would begin once the Galaxy have claimed the trophy or been eliminated from contention.
“We completely agreed to sit down after the season calms down and see where he's at personally, professionally, physically, and everything else,” Te Kloese said. “He is a luxury asset in this league and for this club, to be honest, and we need to be cautious on saying anything that I think could take a little bit of the credit away from what he's done, first of all for the sport and second of all for the club.”
Pavon almost certainly will become a Designated Player next season, joining dos Santos. Ibrahimovic and French winger Romain Alessandrini, the other DPs, are out of contract this year. Alessandrini, 30, who in Minnesota is expected to be on the Galaxy's 18-man roster for the first time since suffering a knee injury in mid-April, has played just five games this year after serving as an integral piece of the attack the previous two seasons.
Asked whether the Galaxy might next year have to make a DP decision, as they did with Giovani Dos Santos when he departed ahead of the season, te Kloese replied: “Yeah, we will probably have to make a decision.”
Ibrahimovic said he'd have to mull over “a lot of things” to decide if he's coming back. Whether he will have a say isn't certain.
“I have a contract until 31 December, I think it is,” he said Thursday. “Until then, there is no other thoughts [about next year]. I respect my contract, and if I leave, [the media] will have less to write about. If I stay, you will still have something to write about. So let's see what happens.”