Zlatan decided he’d had enough.
Not long after the LA Galaxy defeated their cross-city rivals, the outspoken striker spoke at length about feeling “hunted”. A violent collision with LAFC’s Mohamed El-Munir left the defender with a zygomatic arch fracture, eliciting a strong response from voices around the league who called for Ibra’s suspension.
“That I feel a little bit hunted in that way,” Ibra said at the time. “That is not OK, because I play my game and I need to feel free in my game and not feel after the game people will look at me and look [at the] detail at everything I do. Because that is not part of the game. We have a referee, the referee does his thing. If it goes beyond that, I understand, we have this Disciplinary Committee, but [what is] worse than [being] reviewed every game?
“I’m professional like everybody else. I should get treated like everybody else. If they cannot stop you on the field, that’s it, you cannot do nothing about it. And if you try to do something outside [the field], that for me is not part of the game. That is not professional.”
The big Swede wasn’t done. Five days later under the cool shade of the Exploria Stadium stands, an aggravated Ibrahimovic sarcastically clapped in the direction of Howard Webb, general manager of the Professional Referee Organization (PRO) that officiates MLS matches.
Webb originally ignored Ibra, embracing a colleague and scurrying in the other direction while Zlatan continued to lay it on thick, quipping “It was good refereeing last game!”. Eventually Webb approached Zlatan and the two briefly spoke.
If Webb had the posture of a used car salesman, it’s with good reason. The officiating in MLS has been unacceptable poor, and since Ibra’s rant the Galaxy have been sold too many lemons.
In the 16th minute at Audi Field, a Zlatan Ibrahimovic fresh from a one-game suspension for yellow card accumulation had done well to deflect a D.C. United clearance. As the ball careened in the air, Ibra skipped to the open space poised to win the challenge when defender Federic Brilliant slammed into the striker with a running start, placing his right hand on Ibra’s back as a starting point and smashing Ibra in the back of the head.
Looks like a PK to us.
How was there no whistle? Ibra’s plight at times reminds us of another LA sports legend, Shaquille O’Neal. The Lakers center was frequently subjected to heavy abuse from defenders that bordered on comical at times, but due to his massive advantages in size and strength the refs would often swallow the whistle in a bid to even the odds.
Missing out on road points is one thing, but a six-point swing is significantly worse. In the 77th minute of LA’s exciting but disappointing 4-3 defeat at CenturyLink Field, the Sounders quickly responded to Uriel Antuna’s equalizer when a Jordan Morris give-and-go with Raúl Ruídiaz obliterated the Galaxy back four.
It was also a blown offside call. (The league did not cover the play and highlights appear to crop out the positioning of Jorgen Skjelvik)
The lines are somewhat rudimentary, but with Skjelvik’s left foot parallel to the top of the center circle and Ruidiaz a few feet off the line, even the harshest interpretation of the Peruvian’s position would indicate he was marginally offside. No call.
The next match with LA visiting Colorado in need of vital points to stay competitive in the playoff race, the Galaxy were on the receiving end of the worst ten minutes of officiating in Major League Soccer this season.
The controversy began in the 83rd minute when Rapids striker Andre Shinyashiki slalomed in the box before going down and referee Fotis Bazakos pointed to the spot. In real time, it looked like a dive. On instant replay, it was an obvious dive. As ESPN FC’s Alejandro Moreno put it, there was “No contact whatsoever and it is a dive 100%”. Bazakos elected not to check VAR and Nicolas Mezquida tucked away the penalty.
Conversely with the Galaxy fighting tooth and nail to find an equalizer, deep into second half stoppage time Zlatan Ibrahimovic redirected a cross right into the path of Rolf Feltscher right in front of the goal. As the defender dove to head into an empty net, Danny Wilson literally kicked Feltscher in the head inside the six-yard box. There was no call, and after a VAR check Bazakos waved play on.
Spectrum SportsNet’s Dan Kennedy was stunned, as was the rest of us. ESPN FC devoted a five minute segment to the controversial decision as the hosts trashed the call.
Conventional wisdom dictates bad calls tend to even out over time, but a home match vs. the Sounders and the road trip at LAFC featured tough-but-fair calls that went against the Galaxy: Six minutes in Daniel Steres was rightly given a red card for Denial of an Obvious Goalscoring Oppurtunity while a Jona dos Santos tally was waved off for a handball.
As Joe Tutino muttered on the broadcast after the Feltscher non-call, “What is going on here?”
If you ask us, the implementation of VAR has likely been tougher to pull off than advertised. Coupled with raised expectations from fans to get the big calls right and the poor performance of PRO, and well you have the Galaxy’s current predicament. (It also wouldn’t surprise us if Ibra’s criticisms influenced some of the officials, but that’s just human nature, if wrong and idiotic)
The Western Conference playoff race is tight as a drum, and with LA dead last in fouls suffered Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s side are especially vulnerable to erroneous decisions. With a razor-thin margin between qualifying for the postseason and favorable seeding, the Galaxy cannot afford to drop any more points due to forces outside their control.
Additionally as you may have noticed by the reaction of the ESPN FC crew to the officiating calamity, critics are becoming increasingly comfortable questioning the legitimacy of the league. (That’s how you get Craig Burley insinuating MLS tips the scales for players when it suits their interests)
Bobby Warshaw made the case Thursday that the Galaxy missing the playoffs would be “The biggest failure in league history”.
It’s a solid argument. After missing the postseason in consecutive seasons the Galaxy organization has spent an unprecedented amount of money on and off the field to rebuild a stagnant club. Dennis te Kloese made Zlatan Ibrahimovic the highest paid player in the league before shelling out six million dollars to buy out Giovani dos Santos. Loan signing Cristian Pavón has a 20 million dollar buyout clause, and should Guille remain in charge you’d expect LA to pay the fee. Bars, statues and other upgrades are popping up around Dignity Health Sports Park and safe standing is coming next year. Not to mention failing to qualify robs Zlatan of the MLS Cup playoff experience.
Regardless of how LA performs over the final stretch however, the performances of the officials must improve.