Although Zlatan Ibrahimovic is one of the top strikers in the world, the Galaxy continue to pursue the forward whose contract with Manchester United ends after this season. (Ooli Scarff / AFP / Getty Images)
The Galaxy and Manchester United are separated by one ocean, $233 million in payroll — depending on who’s doing the math — and decades of soccer tradition. But the two teams have one thing in common: they’re both trying to sign Swedish star Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
And though the Galaxy’s bid seems like a quixotic one at this point, it’s far too early to count them out.
The team has been down this road before. Last spring it made a play for Ibrahimovic, only to watch him sign a one-year deal with Manchester United.
From the outside that pursuit of Ibrahimovic, arguably one of the three best players in the world, seemed both tentative and impractical, as if the team was kicking the tires on an expensive sports car knowing it had Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane and Gio dos Santos taking up space in their garage.
Turns out that tire-kicking built the foundation for the new bid, which feels much more realistic.
For starters, the team has already made an offer for Ibrahimovic, who, at 35, leads Man United with 26 goals in all competitions. And though the Galaxy can’t discuss that publicly since Ibrahimovic has three months left on his current contract, two team officials said privately the deal would be the most lucrative in MLS history, topping the $7.167 Orlando City is paying Kaka.
By how much is significant, since Forbes said Ibrahimovic made more than $30 million in salary, prize money, endorsements and bonuses in the 12 months ending last June, a month before he signed with Manchester United.
The Galaxy won’t win a bidding war with Manchester United, the richest club in the world. But there are reasons to be optimistic about the team’s pursuit nonetheless.
Ibrahimovic, who already has more money than he can spend, has long expressed an interest in MLS, and Southern California offers him something no other area in the world can: the chance to be a Hollywood star. Both critics and friends agree the only thing bigger than Ibrahimovic’s talent is his ego, which is why no one was sure if he was joking last spring when he offered to stay with Paris Saint-Germaine if the city replaced the Eiffel Tower with a statue of him.
A move to the U.S. would also give Ibrahimovic and his sponsors a chance to expand their brand into the fastest-growing soccer market in the world.
Plus the Galaxy is the best-known franchise in MLS, one that has a history of bold moves and one that has proven adept at incorporating big-name players, having already welcomed David Beckham, Keane, Gerrard, Dos Santos and Ashley Cole.
Expect the Galaxy’s bid to get significant support from the league, which would benefit immeasurably from a personality like Ibrahimovic. In ESPNfc’s annual preseason poll of MLS players, more respondents — nearly one in four — said they would prefer to see Ibrahimovic join the league than Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.
“That would be sick,” one said in the anonymous survey. “A personality like that would be good for the league."
But there are also factors working against the Galaxy, provided Ibrahimovic’s representatives are doing their homework.
Although the team’s front office — which has grown increasingly sensitive and insular over the winter — disagrees, the Galaxy’s winter reorganization has left outsiders wondering about the team’s short-term future. Gone are veterans like Keane, Gerrard, Landon Donovan and Mike Magee, who are retired, and A.J. DeLaGarza, who was traded, lopping nearly $5 million off the payroll.
Gone, too, are expensive designated players like Gerrard (one year, $6 million), who was replaced by the more-reasonably priced Romain Alessandrini (three years, $5.4 million). The Galaxy has also chased youth with a vengeance, opening the season with six players who had never appeared in a league game and six others who had played in fewer than 20. The average age on the 26-man roster was 25.7, among the youngest in MLS.
Also missing is Bruce Arena, the most successful coach in U.S. soccer history and a manager whose reputation is well-known in Europe. In his place the Galaxy hired Curt Onalfo, who is 30-42-25 in three stops as an MLS coach.
Is the lure of Hollywood enough for Ibrahimovic to leave storied Man United for a young, rebuilding Galaxy team that could find itself deep in the standings when the transfer window opens in July?
Man United could make those calculations go away by qualifying for the next Champions League, the one major club championship Ibrahimovic has never won. A chance to tick that box would cement his return to Old Trafford, but to qualify the team must win the Europa League (it’s in the round of 16) or finish in the top four in the Premier League, where it stands sixth, three points out of the top four, with 12 games to play.
And that raises one final possibility in the Ibrahimovic sweepstakes: What if his agent is using the Galaxy to get a better deal in England?
Man United has a contract option for next season but Ibrahimovic wants a two-year deal, something the team is reluctant to give a 35-year-old. So last month his Italian agent, Mino Raiola, dropped not-so-subtle hints that a return to Italy is an option. Raiola has also, reportedly, fielded a $146-million offer for his client to jump to the Chinese Super League.
Add the Galaxy to the mix and Man United is suddenly dealing with three credible suitors for a player that has scored or assisted on more than a quarter of its goals this season.
Ask the Galaxy, though, and they’ll tell you they’re a player, not the team being played.
“We have the [roster] slot. We have the resources,” said Dan Beckerman, the president and chief executive of AEG, the sports and entertainment conglomerate that owns the team.
Now all they need is his signature on a contract.