31st March 2018. Zlatan Ibrahimovic steps onto the StubHub Centre pitch for the first time as an LA Galaxy player in the 71st minute.
His new team are down 3-1 to their latest rivals in the City of Angels, LAFC, in the inaugural ‘El Trafico’.
What happened next personified the legend of Zlatan.
Chris Pontius pulled a second goal back for the Galaxy moments after the Swede was introduced into the game, and then in the 77th minute, Zlatan did what Zlatan does best.
From 40-yards out, the ball fell perfectly into the path of the imposing striker, and without hesitation, Ibrahimovic volleyed past Tyler Miller from that obscene distance to put the Galaxy back on level terms. And just for good measure, the 36-year-old forward scored a 90th-minute winner to secure a vital win in the first LA Derby.
For MLS, this was the highlight package of a lifetime. For Ibrahimovic, it was just another game.
An impending move
Ibrahimovic in the USA was something that was always going to happen. Having conquered most of Europe with spells at both Milan clubs, PSG and Manchester United, America always seemed to be the final destination in the veteran striker’s international football tour. And why not?
MLS had, for the most part, been seen as a cushty league to play the final years of your footballing career. With an annual salary of over $1 million and playing for a franchise based in one of the most iconic cities in the world, why wouldn’t you want to spend the last two to three years of your career chilling on the beach and dominating an under-developed league?
At least, that was the case. What used to be seen as a ‘retirement league’ has now flourished and developed into one of the best leagues in North America and a viable springboard for players in the Americas to win a move to Europe.
Even though MLS franchises have shifted their transfer policy to signing younger, cheaper and quite frankly better players from other parts of the globe - mainly South America - the allure of signing a big name is still there for some clubs, which is why we still see the Ibrahimovic‘s and Wayne Rooney’s of the world joining the league. But is this really a bad thing?
More than just a big name
The shift from teams signing ageing superstars to young players with bags of potential has been a positive change for MLS, but it doesn’t mean that signing older players with massive international reputations should be ignored.
Ibrahimovic, as well as his former teammate Rooney, have not only improved the reputation of MLS on a global level with their star power but have also improved the overall quality of the league by bringing the best out of the players around them.
For all his arrogance and larger than life persona in the media, Ibrahimovic remains a player who is determined to see his team do well and to see his teammates improve in training and on the pitch. For players in a league as young as MLS, this is a great leap forward in terms of player tutoring and development.
A bigger figure off the pitch
As well as scoring last-minute winners as the California-based side make for a late push to the MLS playoffs, Ibrahimovic is proving to be a big advert for both the club and league in America.
From buying a full-page ad in the LA Times to appearing on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Zlatan has without question increased the popularity of MLS in America, which in of itself is an even bigger accomplishment than growing the league on an international level.
And his performances on the pitch have only furthered his cause. As well as his debut for the Galaxy, his 500th career goal in mid-September against Toronto FC in an epic 5-3 loss was almost as heroic as Ibrahimovic round-house kicked the ball past Alex Bono to become only the fourth active player in world football to have scored 500 career goals.
Ibrahimovic is one of the most polarising and entertaining figures in the world of football, but his impact on the game, and especially in MLS, has been felt since his incredible debut in March of this year.
The era of the ageing superstar might well be ending in America, but there is no doubt that their impact in MLS remains as important as ever.