Heading into Sunday's match against Sporting KC, it was easy to question the legitimacy of the LA Galaxy. For the second straight season, the Galaxy were flirting with disaster, having wasted Zlatan Ibrahimovic's first MLS campaign by bungling the playoffs in the final week of the season.
A run of 22 points from 21 matches since May this season was starting to look more like a fact than an aberration. It was fair to question whether the Galaxy were any good at all, despite their star-studded cast and lofty expectations.
However, any questions regarding the LA Galaxy were answered in emphatic fashion on Sunday evening.
Ibrahimovic netted three of the Galaxy's seven goals on Sunday night as they crushed Sporting KC 7-2 at StubHub Center to send a message to all of their doubters. After missing the post-season last year and limping lethargically through the summer months, the Galaxy look like they'll be just fine as crunch time looms.
But it didn't start that way. The Galaxy actually trailed within 25 minutes as Felipe Guttierez scored for the visiting side. It was Guttierez who scored again too in the 86th minute for the game's ninth and final goal. Everything that happened in between, though, was nothing short of a statement.
Ibrahimovic's first came from the spot, and it came even after a moment of weakness that proved little more than a blip. The legendary striker's first attempt was saved by Tim Melia, but the Swede had little trouble in firing it right back into the center of the goal to tie the score at one apiece.
It stayed that way until half time when the onslaught truly began. Joe Corona scored three minutes into the second half, and three minutes after that it was Zlatan again. That goal, Ibrahimovic's 25th of the season, saw him seal the Galaxy's single-season record with 26 while surpassing MLS legend Carlos Ruiz along the way.
Rising Mexican star Uriel Antuna was next, scoring in the 69th in what would be the Galaxy's longest goal drought of the second half: a whole eighteen minutes. Sebastian lletget scored two goals within two minutes soon after before Ibrahimovic jumped right back into the Golden Boot race with his third of the evening, putting him just two goals behind current leader, and newly-discovered rival, Carlos Vela.
It was a performance the Galaxy needed and then some. A midweek loss to the lowly Colorado Rapids threatened to derail their season and, once again, put the club into focus. With big-money stars like Ibrahimovic, Jonathan dos Santos, Romain Alessandrini and Cristian Pavon in the squad, the Galaxy cannot afford to miss the playoffs again.
If they did, it would be nothing short of an embarrassment, and there would be plenty of blame to go around. That blame would trickle from the front-office to head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto and even down to Ibrahimovic himself, whose inability to offer anything defensively up front has, at times, exposed the Galaxy's struggles in attack and defense.
That blame has rapidly turned into optimism however. With Sunday's victory, the Galaxy jumped all the way up to fifth place as the potential of hosting a playoff opener very much remains on the table. The Galaxy are just four points behind the second-place Seattle Sounders, with comparably inexperienced squads like Real Salt Lake and Minnesota United in between. Furthermore, the Galaxy's schedule looks about as light as could be with matches against the Montreal Impact, Vancouver Whitecaps and Houston Dynamo all looking very winnable, while a clash with RSL could determine their playoff seeding.
The Galaxy have work to do, of course. Those games are winnable on paper, but the club has slipped up in the past. One can only look back to last year's debacle against the Dynamo in the final week of the season to remember just how fine the line can be between postseason and absolute failure. In MLS, more than half the teams make the playoffs, and those that don't are generally considered losers. That goes double for the Galaxy, a club that still prides itself upon being the league's premier side despite the rises of Atlanta United and LAFC in recent years.
To continue that battle, the playoffs are a must and, if Sunday's match was any indication, Zlatan and the Galaxy are more than ready for the challenge.