LAFC, just like fans, have been waiting for this moment against Zlatan Ibrahimovic

LOS ANGELES – When Thursday’s marquee Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs matchup gets underway at Banc of California Stadium, the spotlight will again shine brightly on two of the league’s biggest stars (10:30 pm ET | ESPN, ESPN Deportes, TSN, TVAS).

On one hand there’s Carlos Vela of LAFC, who finished with a single-season record 34 goals and 15 assists. He powered the Black & Gold to a Supporters’ Shield title, 2020 Concacaf Champions League spot and single-season record for points (72).

On the other hand, there’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic of the LA Galaxy, the larger-than-life figure who never shies away from a headline-grabbing comment. He has an astounding 52 goals and 17 assists in 56 games since joining the five-time MLS Cup winners last year.

It all begs the question: Have a pair of players in MLS history ever lit up the league like have in 2019? 

“It’s hard to say anyone has,” said LAFC right back Steve Beitashour ahead of the Western Conference semifinal. “It’s remarkable what they’ve done.”

How remarkable, exactly?

This year, the two captains of Southern California’s MLS outfits have combined for 86 goals and assists (37 for Ibra, 49 for Vela). To put that in perspective, during Sebastian Giovinco’s wild 2015 season with Toronto FC, he set the bar for goals and assists at 38. His closest league competitor, Kei Kamara, then of the Columbus Crew, pitched in 30; combine those two players' stats to make for a total of 68. It takes Robbie Keane (28) in third place to surpass them and push the grand total to 96.

Calling the 2019 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target teammates influential is an understatement.  

“I think they are both just world-class players,” Beitashour said. “They are competitive. They always want to win. They always want to score, assist.”

LAFC midfielder Eduard Atuesta broke down Zlatan’s influence by pointing out that the 38-year-old is third among active men’s players in career goals. He has 542, trailing only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

“Zlatan doesn’t need presentation,” said Atuesta. “He doesn’t need anything, but we have 11 players in a good condition to win whatever game.”

All season, distinctions have been made the two sides and the roles their captains play. Both have turned up in past El Traficos, even though LA holds a 3-0-2 lead in the series.

Still, LAFC boss Bob Bradley doesn’t read too much into the comparisons between the two players.

“I don’t know Zlatan,” said the 2019 Sigi Schmid Coach of the Year. “I know there is a persona, but I don’t know the guy. So until I get to know somebody and see them and talk to them and find out what they are like with their teammates and inside, I don’t have any opinions. 

“What I know is that every day Carlos comes in here, he’s got a smile, he’s got an easy way with his teammates. He still is incredible in training with plays he makes, goals he scores. He’s encouraging with his teammates and ... he’s been incredible this year.”

Vela, one of three LAFC Designated Players, is the favorite to lift the 2019 Landon Donovan MVP Award, a goal he set publicly during the beginning of the year. That would come at Ibrahimovic’s expense, despite the Swede’s insistence that he’s the best player in the league. 

“I only know us,” said Bradley in response to all the chatter. “Our football is there for you to see and either like or dislike, and when it comes to the fans on both sides, then that’s what makes it a rivalry.”

For Lee Nguyen, who's been in the league since 2012, the whole back-and-forth narrative about Vela and Ibrahimovic has made Thursday all the more appealing. 

“These are what big games and big moments create,” said Nguyen, who could possibly start in place of an injured Mark-Anthony Kaye (hamstring). “This is what everyone’s been wanting, waiting to see, so you got two big powerhouses and then two big faces of the league going at it. On paper, it looks to be a great game to watch. We all think it’s a great game to play, so we're excited.”