Zlatan Ibrahimovic faces off against Toronto FC on July 4, 2019
Steve Carrillo

‘Irbahimovic’ scores twice, youngsters lead, in win over Toronto

CARSON, Calif. — It wasn’t the prettiest of games, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic is still capable of lifting the LA Galaxy onto his back when they need him.

The 37-year-old Galaxy captain scored twice on Thursday night to lead the club to a 2-0 victory over visiting Toronto FC in front of a sell-out crowd of 25,432 at Dignity Health Sports Park. And on the 24th consecutive July 4th game hosted by the club, the Galaxy saw a few late-game fireworks before it was all over.

The Galaxy were missing seven players — all of whom could be considered starters — due to five injuries and two international absences and started two 17-year-olds in midfielder Efrain Alvarez — making his first MLS start — and defender Julian Araujo.

The night would demand patience. With the Galaxy’s possession limited by a stingy Toronto defense and midfield, and the visitor’s ability to chase play into the Galaxy’s defensive half, there were few clear-cut chances for the home team, especially in the first half.

The lone bright spot came in the 22nd-minute when a perfectly weighted back-door pass from Diego Polenta found Emmanuel Boateng in the box. Boateng put in a perfect cross to the back post for a late-arriving Araujo who’s bullet shot clanked off the post. The rebound found its way to midfielder Joe Corona whose shot was saved off the line and cleared out by a scrambling Toronto backline.

The entire buildup to the play consisted of what seemed like over 20 passes. There were short interchanges, line-breaking passes, and a general flow and movement to the game the Galaxy haven’t seen too often. And it was a moment that wasn’t lost on Galaxy head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto.

“I think we need to mix it up when we have the ball, and sometimes be direct or take patience,” he said after the match. “Today, for example, I remember a play in the first half when Julian [Araujo] gave the pause, and I think maybe 20 passes almost.

“Sometimes the game gave us the possibility for making passes and organizing the play or moving the ball until finding the play, and sometimes I want to be direct. It depends,” he concluded.

But an adjustment at halftime from the Galaxy moved their line of confrontation further up the field. The pressing that was hit and miss in the first half started to catch Toronto trying to build out of the back and the turnovers the Galaxy created led to a more direct approach.

In the 62nd-minute the Galaxy would get Ibrahimovic his most dangerous look of the night. That’s when a sharp cross from Favio Alvarez resulted in the Swedish striker trapping it with his chest and then firing a full-volley towards goal from about 10 yards out. The shot, however, would go high.

It was an uncharacteristic miss from him.

But Ibrahimovic would get another chance served up by Efrain Alvarez in the 75th-minute.

Alvarez fired in a left-footed cross from the far right side of the field just as Ibrahimovic broke through the back line. The curving cross was too high for Toronto’s defenders and almost too high for Ibrahimovic. But while fading away from the goal, Ibrahimovic was able to head the ball over goalkeeper Quentin Westberg and into the far-post side-netting for the lead.

“I said he is the biggest talent in this league and he’s ready to play,” Ibrahimovic said of Alvarez who is 20 years younger. “He’s only 17, and I believe that in this league, if you’re 16 or 17, you can be ready to play, because the level is not like Europe.”

Alvarez rose to the occasion, as he’s often done in 2019. And coming off a good substitute appearance in the Galaxy’s 3-0 loss to San Jose over the weekend, Schelotto and the rest of the staff felt he deserved a chance to start against Toronto.

“I was very happy I got the start,” Alvarez said. “That is something I’ve been waiting for the last two years or so that I’ve been with the second team. This is a dream come true, but from here, we start working more and more, and I start trying to get more starts.”

The night, however, wasn’t over. And with Toronto pushing forward to try and get the equalizer, second-half stub, and MLS Rookie, Emil Cuello entered the match in the 82nd-minute in place of Boateng.

It was while the Galaxy were trying to run the clock out that the 22-year-old made a run on the left side and saw Ibrahimovic breaking in behind the Toronto line. The pass was perfect, and Ibrahimovic trapped and tip-toed around Westberg for his second goal of the night. In total, it was his 13th goal of the season and his 35th goals since joining the Galaxy in 2018.

Ibrahimovic is averaging one goal every 104 minutes in 2019, and 0.87 goals per game. The last number puts him second only to Galaxy Legend Carlos Ruiz in terms of goals per game (0.92) and ahead of Robbie Keane (0.83), Eduardo Hurtado (0.81), and his own 2018 season (0.81).

But Ibrahimovic is most likely happy that after a two-game scoreless streak — his second longest since joining the team — is over even if he doesn’t show it.

“Of course I will score,” he said with the same certainty that one would say of the sky being blue. “That’s the last problem I have. I just need to be in the right spot and the right position, which is the most difficult part.

“I’m not worried about the goals. I think the collective performance is more important than my goals because if the collective performance is there, the goals will come.”

And on a night that he wore a kit with a misspelled last name – “Irbahimovic” – he was everything the Galaxy needed to finish out the last of the games affected by the international break.

The Galaxy remain in second place in the Western Conference and third in the overall league standings and will get ready for the return leg of last week’s Cali-Clasico on July 12th.

But Schelotto was more than pleased with the result, and with some of the individual performances. Especially with the very short bench.

“I’m very happy for him [Ibrahimovic],” he explained to reporters after the game. “He has a big career. He knows the striker sometimes can, and sometimes can’t score.

“But, I feel happy because you can feel like he feels, like when he doesn’t score or when he doesn’t have the opportunity to score, he gets frustrated. And today, the young players gave him the possibility to score twice.”