The Montreal Impact can’t be intimidated by the towering figure of Zlatan Ibrahimovic if they hope to remain in playoff contention.
Led by Ibrahimovic, the Los Angeles Galaxy (14-13-3) welcome the Impact (11-16-4) to Dignity Health Sports Park on Saturday night with both MLS teams fighting for a playoff spot.
Coming off his third career hat trick in MLS in a 7-2 win over Sporting Kansas City last week, the Swedish-born striker described himself as “the best-ever player in MLS.”
“He’s a personality, that’s for sure,” Impact defender Bacary Sagna said of L.A.’s leading man. “And I don’t even have to list his skill-set. He’s such an important player for them, for the entire league and for soccer in general. The career that he’s had, what he brings to the Galaxy, it’s huge.
“But at the end of the day, he’s a player like all the others.”
Though his future in MLS remains unclear, Ibrahimovic is doing whatever he can right now to drag the fifth-place Galaxy across the playoff line. His franchise-record 26 goals are two shy of LAFC’s Carlos Vela in the hunt for the Golden Boot.
The 37-year-old Galaxy captain has netted as many goals in the league this season as Montreal’s top five scorers combined.
The Galaxy, who are looking to win back-to-back games for the first time since May, are fifth in the West with four games left. They are one point ahead of San Jose and Dallas and two ahead of eighth-place Portland. The top seven make the playoffs.
“And it’s not just Zlatan,” warned Impact midfielder Ignacio Piatti before the team departed for California. “There are a few Argentinians in the team like [Cristian] Pavon, who is extremely fast. There’s also [Uriel] Antuna and [Jonathan] dos Santos.
“We have to be strong defensively, which will give us a chance to score.”
There is little room for error for the Impact, who are coming off a shocking 1-0 defeat at home to last-place FC Cincinnati. With three games remaining in the regular season, the Impact is at risk of missing the playoffs for the third consecutive year.
Montreal trails New England by three points in the standings for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, with the Revolution benefiting from a game in hand.
“We have to win to keep going here, for a chance at the playoffs,” said Piatti, who has missed 22 games this campaign with various injuries. “A victory is the only result that keeps us in the race with New England.”
Montreal is in a precarious position down the stretch following an atrocious 2-9-1 slump since the end of June.
Coach Wilmer Cabrera’s men are hoping a 1-0 victory over Toronto FC in the home leg of the Canadian Championship final on Wednesday will bring renewed energy and conviction to the squad.
“It was a complete effort against Toronto, offensively and defensively,” assistant coach Wilfried Nancy said. “That’s something we can build on. Players feel better, they’re more confident.”
Piatti, who scored the lone goal versus TFC in the 17th minute, originally was not expected to travel with Montreal to Los Angeles. Cabrera wanted to rest him for the second leg of the Canadian Cup final next Wednesday.
Those plans changed when Bojan and Maximiliano Urruti sustained injuries against Toronto. Their status remains unclear for Saturday’s clash.
If attacking players Bojan, Urruti and Piatti are all kept out of the starting lineup, the Impact could put midfielder Orji Okwonkwo in the striker’s spot.
“We’ve been talking about playing Orji in that position for quite some time now,” said Nancy. “He can be an interesting threat up top. It’s definitely something we’re thinking about. He can really stretch an opponent’s back line.”