From the moment Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s “You’re Welcome” message hit newsstands in March, expectations were thrust upon the LA Galaxy. Not that that is anything new. The Galaxy have long been Major League Soccer’s marquee franchise and long been a club capable of both drawing and embracing stars of even Ibrahimovic’s stature.
Those expectations, like those of every season, begin and end with the playoffs. The Galaxy are not a club that prides itself on memorable regular season wins and moments. Instead, the Galaxy are a club that take pride in performances in do-or-die matches with a trophy at the end.
To say that club has not met those expectations is fair. After 2017 brought the club's worst ever campaign, the Galaxy have largely floundered through the 2018 season, one filled with notable Ibrahimovic-sized peaks and plenty of valleys. But they’ll get their do-or-die game, even if it isn’t quite the scenario the club expected.
It’s simple for the Galaxy: win on Sunday at home against the Houston Dynamo and the club will surpass Real Salt Lake and seal a postseason spot. Lose and, well, it’s another year wasted at a time where the club simply can’t afford it.
With the Atlanta Uniteds of the world spending big and newly-formed neighbors Los Angeles FC reaching unprecedented success for an expansion team, the Galaxy seem to be lagging behind. For all of the money spent, all of the talent acquired and all of the history accrued, the Galaxy have never been closer to fading back out of the elite and towards the rest of the pack.
That makes Sunday’s match against the Dynamo one that may just be among the most important in the history of a club that was built upon stepping up in important matches. But can they do it this time around?
"I enjoy it. I don’t know about my teammates, but I think they enjoy it," Ibrahimovic said ahead of Sunday's match.
"I like these games because it’s a lot of pressure. It’s the moment where you want to be the difference, it’s the moment you want to shine as a team.
"It’s up to us. If we make it, we make it. If we don’t we have no one else to blame but ourselves."
How did we get here? In many ways, it’s a road that makes little sense. Ibrahimovic, playing for an absurdly discounted $1.5 million salary this season, has been everything the club could have hoped for and more. He’s arguably been the league’s most dominant force, trailing only Atlanta’s Josef Martinez in the Golden Boot race with 22 goals.
Ibrahimovic, as predicted by outsiders and, of course, the man himself, has dominated in the most spectacular ways imaginable.
"I came here and I think everybody had a lot of expectations," he said. "I had a lot of pressure because everybody says 'he’s old' and 'he’s that'. I came back from injury and there were all these excuses that I would hear all the time but now I don’t hear anything because of my results and the way I’m performing."
The supporting cast appears fine as well. Romain Alesandrini was one of 2017’s best acquisitions and remains a dangerous option in attack. Jonathan and Giovani dos Santos, for all of their difficulties, are still high quality Designated Players in a league where not every club can afford to use all three. One of the league’s top scorers, Ola Kamara, was brought in to lead the line while U.S. national team veteran Perry Kitchen joined another American international in Sebastian Lletget to anchor the midfield.
With the last day of the #MLS regular season kicking off on Sunday, here's a look at a Sunday schedule with plenty of implications, from playoff berths, to playoff seeds and the Supporters' Shield: pic.twitter.com/ymNX8hf5i3 — Ives Galarcep (@SoccerByIves) October 27, 2018
The problem lies in defense, where the Galaxy spent more than all but four teams on their backline. Captain Ashley Cole has been solid throughout his Galaxy tenure, putting to end the “retire on a beach” narrative that came with him. Other than that, though, the defense has been among the worst in the league having allowed 61 goals in just 33 matches. It’s a unit that largely led to Sigi Schmid’s dismissal as head coach and a unit that is largely culpable for the situation the club finds itself in.
Sunday's win-or-go-home match is not an ideal situation by any means, but one the club likely would have been fine with if asked several weeks back. The Galaxy spent a bulk of the season out of the playoff race, chasing what was certainly a deep group of contenders in the West. But a recent run of form has seen the club grab 10 of the last 12 possible points to put together a late surge towards the postseason.
"Four games ago was the moment where it started being that either we want or we don’t want," Ibrahimovic said. "If we want, we have to take points in all of the remaining games. So far, we’ve taken points and now we have everything in our hands. That’s easier to control than depending on other teams."
To complete that surge, the Galaxy will need to shine once again on Sunday against the Dynamo, a team that won the U.S. Open Cup this summer but has done little else. The Dynamo did, however, edge the Galaxy back in May with a 3-2 victory where Ibrahimovic was held goalless in what was a relatively quiet affair by his standards.
For years, the Galaxy were blessed with stars and success, led by Landon Donovan, Robbie Keane, David Beckham and a number of other standout contributors. In recent years, it’s been harder to come by as the rest of the league has seemingly caught up. Now, the future is a bit murkier as the futures of Ibrahimovic and Cole are certainly up in the air while the club will enter 2019 with a new coach at the helm.
For now, though, the Galaxy have their star in Ibrahimovic, one larger than life even by Hollywood standards. Now, they'll need to prove they can still find success while showing that there's reason to believe the future can be half as bright as the past.
"In recent years, this has been a club with a tradition of winning and I’ve not won since I’ve been here or been in the final of our conference," Cole said. "This year started off bad, but now we have a chance to do it. I have a lot of confidence in this team.
"We’re not taking it for granted. We’ve not made it to any playoffs yet, but we’re happy it’s in our hands."