When Zlatan Ibrahimovic brashly proclaimed this week that he was without question the best player in Major League Soccer, even as Carlos Vela is in the midst of the best season in league history, it sounded like the kind of talk that even the superstar Swede would have some trouble backing up.
Well, leave it to Ibrahimovic to walk the walk after talking the talk. The LA Galaxy star scored a hat-trick, including a pair of stunning strikes, to give the Galaxy a resounding 3-2 LA derby triumph over Vela's Los Angeles FC on Friday night.
It was the kind of display that suddenly made his proclamation that he was a "Ferrari among Fiats" in MLS a hard one to find fault with, even if the Ferrari doesn't always hit the kind of top gear we saw on Friday. At his best, Ibrahimovic is still capable of destroying a defense, even one as reliable as LAFC's usually is. LAFC hadn't given up more than two goals to any opponent this season, boasting the stingiest defense in the league with 17 goals allowed in 20 matches.
Then came Zlatan to add another stunning chapter to the relatively young rivalry he had already put his stamp on with an unforgettable double in his MLS debut a year ago. Back then, when Ibrahimovic signaled his MLS arrival with a jaw-dropping goal from 40 yards away, it felt like the kind of performance he wouldn't be able to top while with the Galaxy.
Consider it topped after Friday's triple, which began with a highlight-reel caliber masterpiece, and ended with a long-range blast that sealed a victory that wasn't just important because of the bragging rights in Los Angeles, but also because the Galaxy had been in a prolonged funk that had seen them lose seven of their past 11, including a pair of ugly defeats against the San Jose Earthquakes.
Part of the Galaxy's struggles could be pinned on missing Jonathan Dos Santos and Uriel Antuna during the Gold Cup, but Ibrahimovic also deserved some of the blame for some lackluster performances.
Perhaps the old lion needed something to get him going, and it came in the form of a date with LAFC, the best team in MLS, and an opponent that could bring the best out of Ibrahimovic. He took dead aim at LAFC's best player in Vela — who is putting together an MVP season — and ran the real risk of providing the kind of bulletin board material that could motivate an LAFC that hasn't exactly needed much help in tearing up opponents.
It's clear that the talk served its purpose in motivating Ibrahimovic himself to have to live up to the big talk he delivered in the lead-up to Friday's derby. The question is whether that performance will mean more than a one-game statement for a Galaxy side that has underperformed.
Is Ibrahimovic ready to dominate more consistently, which is what Vela has been doing all season with LAFC? He can claim bragging rights for now, but if LAFC continues to run away with the league, and the Galaxy continue to struggle with consistency, the significance of Friday's masterpiece will fade.
That said, Friday's victory could be the kind of result that inspires the Galaxy and spark a run at an MLS Cup title that had been starting to feel like it is LAFC's to lose.
Friday's loss doesn't change LAFC's status as title favorites, but it should slow down any talk disputing Ibrahimovic's status as the best player in MLS. Vela is putting together what may wind up being the best season in MLS history, and he will have plenty of time to bolster his own case to the label, but after Friday's hat-trick, it's difficult to deny Ibrahimovic's claim to the crown of Best in MLS.