Zlatan: I'm returning to MLS to lift Galaxy in standings
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By GREG BEACHAM
UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. (AP) Although Zlatan Ibrahimovic's first season in Major League Soccer was a smashing individual success, his LA Galaxy were a serious disappointment in the standings.
The Galaxy's failure to make the MLS playoffs is a major reason why the Swedish superstar is back for another season in California instead of taking big money to return to Europe.
"My priority No. 1 was to stay with the Galaxy, because I feel I have much more to give to Galaxy and the MLS, the fans," Ibrahimovic said Saturday at a Los Angeles-area hotel during the league's media day. "The way we ended last season was not a situation normal for me, because normally where I go, I win. And I didn't succeed with that here, and that for me was not OK. I think the fans deserve more than what they got."
The 37-year-old Ibrahimovic scored 22 goals in 27 games after joining the Galaxy in March. He added 10 assists and dazzled the North American league with his offensive skill, which hadn't been diminished by his recent knee injury.
Although he led one of the most prolific goal-scoring teams in MLS, the Galaxy struggled defensively and in big games. They finished in seventh place in the Western Conference with a 13-12-9 record despite Zlatan's steady scoring.
Ibrahimovic had little doubt he could score goals against MLS defenses, but victories weren't as simple to acquire. After proving he is still a force up front, he wants to lift the Galaxy's entire roster this year.
"For the upcoming season, I want to feel I have a challenge to win this thing," Ibrahimovic said. "The first season was more about, `How do I feel?' What level I am, especially after my injury. Didn't play soccer for more than a year, but it took 10 minutes and I showed the world what I was. I showed them that I'm still there, that I'm still alive, and that was important for me."
Ibrahimovic also got a new one-year contract paying him much more than last season, when he made a meager $1.5 million. Zlatan agreed to the smaller initial deal to fit into the strictures on the Galaxy's payroll imposed by MLS' salary cap, but his new deal is more commensurate with his abilities.
"From being the worst-paid (superstar) to best, for me, is the same situation, because I still have to perform," Ibrahimovic said. "I performed under being the worst-paid, so imagine now how I will perform being the best-paid."
Ibrahimovic said he could have signed a multiyear deal with the Galaxy, but declined.
"I'll play as long as I can perform, and that's why I probably could sign two years, three years, four years," Ibrahimovic said. "That is how much the Galaxy believe in me. But I said, `One year at a time.' For the moment, I feel good. I feel I can give back. I don't want to put the club in a situation where I cannot perform and (still) have me (on the payroll), especially under these strict rules."
The five-time MLS Cup champion Galaxy are returning with much the same roster, but they will be led by new coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, the former Boca Juniors boss, and new general manager Dennis Te Kloese, the former Mexican national team executive.
Although Ibrahimovic got along well with his first Galaxy coaches - the late Sigi Schmid and interim coach Dom Kinnear, who returns as an assistant to Schelotto - he supported the decision to hire the new Argentine coach.
"The Galaxy made big changes, and that's the sign of a big club," Ibrahimovic said. "Because when they're not successful, when they're not happy, they make changes. ... I'm just waiting to start with the preparation, but I think the vacation was too long. I never had so long a break like right now."
Ibrahimovic returns as the biggest name in MLS, which has balanced its usual lineup of over-30 European stars with a wave of younger talent from South America.
While the likes of Argentina's Gonzalo Martinez and Peru's Marcos Lopez should continue to raise the overall level of competition, stars like Zlatan, D.C. United's Wayne Rooney and the Chicago Fire's Bastian Schweinsteiger are keeping the world's eyes on the league.
"When guys like (Ibrahimovic) come, you hope that they don't just come and chill out," said Bradley Wright-Phillips, the New York Red Bulls' veteran English forward. "It helps our league when guys like him are playing and giving their all."
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Updated January 19, 2019