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Zlatan Ibrahimovic broke LAFC

MLS: Los Angeles FC at LA Galaxy Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

“The stage was set” quipped Daniel Steres following their dominating 3-2 victory Friday night over LAFC which keeps the LA Galaxy undefeated vs. their cross-town rivals in four tries.

There’s lots of credit to go around. Guillermo Barros Schelotto got the big calls right and drew up a clever game plan the team executed to near perfection. The back line was immense. Favio Alvarez proved his worth and showcased his playmaking ability. Ibra himself scored a perfect hat trick with three brilliant strikes.

That was the easy part. The trick was getting inside his opponent’s heads.

There are many in the Soccer Twittersphere who believe Ibra is too good for MLS, too decorated of a player to lower himself to the day-to-day rigors of a league still maturing. This notion sometimes manifests itself in strange ways: When Ibra shook his head at the turf in utter disbelief after the Houston Dynamo knocked the Galaxy out of the MLS Cup playoffs last fall, a majority of fans and media doubted his return in 2019. It never occurred to them he was frustrated at his own poor performance on the day.

Contrary to popular opinion, the big Swede is paying closer attention than you might think. Ibra’s sombrero over Eduard Atuesta that created the opening goal? We couldn’t help but notice it appeared mighty similar to a play that earned Raul Ruidiaz GOW honors last week. Did Zlatan perhaps catch a highlight of the move and draw inspiration when executing his own?

GBS may have drawn up the correct game plan for Friday’s battle, but at the beginning of the week Ibrahimovic had a plan on his own.

We can talk about LAFC’s beautiful, aesthetically pleasing football, the chase for attacking records, Carlos Vela’s majestic left foot et al.

They’ve also added an edge to their play this season: A big part of their success lies in their intimidation factor, the idea that the LAFC attacking machine can’t be stopped. Their penchant for scoring late goals, the boa constrictor of a midfield, Bob’s immaculately pressed Guess jeans, all designed in part to promote an inevitability around the group that has swallowed weaker times whole.

Zlatan recognized this and set to work. Like a disgruntled hitman taking down an outfit, Ibra had to take down the bosses to bring down the rest of the organization.

Usually the last thing you do when facing a red-hot team is egg on their leading scorer and the most dangerous attacker in the league, but that’s exactly what Ibra did, definitively declaring himself the better player in an interview with ESPN FC’s Herculez Gomez.

And it worked.

It’s a bit strange to accuse someone with a brace of not rising to the occasion, but with the exception of two highly questionable goals the runaway Golden Boot leader had a quiet night. The excellent Diego Polenta forced Vela into dribbling through traffic time and time again and his teammates were unable to step up in his absence.

Not that Ibra was done by any means. In addition to jawing at his opponents all night, he had one more target. After equalizing the match with typical flair five minutes after Vela gave LAFC the lead, the big Swede ran towards Bob Bradley before celebrated right in front of the manager.

Though Bradley was unfazed, his players were deflated. We’ll never know if that celebration was planned, but from that point in the match LA were dominant, and to give credit to Bob he was forthright about his team’s shortcomings on the night.

Briefly after the final whistle goalkeeper coach Zak Abdel angrily gestured at Ibra after he appeared to elbow Mohammed El-Munir late in the match. One of the few who seemed to understand if you want to beat Zlatan at some point you have to stand up to the guy, the two were separated. No one else bothered Ibra that night and LA came away the victors.

When Sebastian Salazar interviewed Ibra moments before the match, he asked if he thought his words motivated Carlos Vela.

With a grin, Ibra said “I hope”.