LOS ANGELES – The primary talking point following the LA Galaxy's loss Thursday night in the Audi 2019 MLS Cup Playoffs Western Conference Semifinals concerned Zlatan Ibrahimovic, naturally, and whether he'll return for a third Major League Soccer campaign in 2020.
There was nothing new said, of course, just that there will be conversations and “we'll see,” but how it plays out will largely decide how the Galaxy will proceed during the offseason.
Ibrahimovic scored his 31st goal of the year in LA's 5-3 loss to LAFC in the most important El Trafico meeting yet, his 54th in 58 games over nearly two full seasons, then bantered – as is his wont – about how his decision could impact all of MLS.
“You know, I'm very expensive ...,” he said. “No, it's not about money. I was joking. I have another two months [on my contract], and we'll see what happens. ... What happens next year, I don't know. I mean, if I stay or not, I think for MLS is good [if I stay], because the whole world will watch. If I don't stay, nobody will remember what MLS is.”
The 38-year-old Swedish superstar was the key on-field figure as the Galaxy returned to the postseason following a two-year absence and reached the second round. It's a step forward, to be sure – LA had the worst record in the league in 2017 – but was it enough of a step?
“Depends. Depends on how you see it,” Ibrahimovic said. “Because if you're in the playoffs, it's like you want to do something else in the playoffs. If you're not doing enough, you should not be happy just to be in the playoffs. I mean, you'd rather win than just being in the playoffs, is what I think.”
The Galaxy spent a good deal of the season in second place in the West, thanks to a 7-1-1 start, but they were 6-12-2 from the start of May until a Sept. 11 loss to Colorado dropped them to eighth, out of a playoff spot. Three successive wins got them into the postseason, and finished the regular season with two losses when one win would have kept them home for their playoff opener. Nobody among the qualifiers gave up more goals – in the regular season nor playoffs – and they were one of two that had a negative goal difference. They were consistent chiefly at being inconsistent.
“We tried to bring in a system this year with a new coaching staff and some new players and develop what we want to do,” defender Daniel Steres said. “You know, you saw glimpses of it, but I think it was a little inconsistent. I think we just need to build off that and use what we did this year and do it better next year and, obviously, be a little more stingy. ...
“We have the talent. We have the coaching staff. We've got all the pieces we need. I don't know if [we're on the] cusp, but I think we're always capable of getting to the final, getting where we want to be. So that's why it feels like we fell short this year.”
How much of that talent returns, Steres isn't sure. Beyond Ibrahimovic, they've bolstered their roster with good, mostly young talent from Latin America — Boca Juniors loanee Cristian Pavon most of all — and still have work to do, especially along the backline. If the big Swede goes, he must be replaced, and there could be just one open Designated Player slot, with Pavon moving into that classification and out-of-contract winger Romain Alessandrini a possible departure.
Much hinges on Ibrahimovic's decision.
“I think it's too early to speak,” he said. “We just lost and what happens next year, I don't know. I don't know. I really don't know.”
Steres noted that “a lot of us got decisions to make for next year.”
“We'll see who's even back, and we'll let the coaching staff deal with how they want to go about that,” he said. “Yeah, you don't get as far as you want to, rosters change. So see what happens.”
Head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who said he was “very happy” with what the Galaxy accomplished, is looking forward to the next step.
“I think the future will be much better, when we have the time for organize, for to think what we can do for next year ...,” he said. “Really, we need to think, we need to take the time and analyze and then we need to improve, because always if [you don't] win, you have to improve, always. Every time.”