How the LA Galaxy will help Zlatan Ibrahimovic combat MLS' infamous travel challenges
Zlatan Ibrahimovic does spectacular entrances. We knew that long before he crashed home the spectacular long-range shot that introduced him to LA Galaxy fans in his first game.
But as the Galaxy prepare to set off on their first big road trip of the year, with successive visits to Houston, Dallas and Montreal, we may now be at the moment where the novelty of Ibrahimovic's arrival will truly set into the day-to-day grind of a grueling MLS season.
Watching how Ibrahimovic handles the forthcoming sequence may be a more sober measurement of his impact on the Galaxy -- let's take his impact on MLS as a whole as a given -- than the viral spectacle of his first goal for the club. After all, a footnote to that goal was a grinning and relieved-looking Ibrahimovic, after the game, talking about his goal in terms of how well his leg had held up after his long recovery from injury.
He'll need to be mindful of managing his body in MLS. It's hard to overstate just how different the weekly regimes of an American soccer player are from most of their European-based counterparts. It's not just the travel time over a full continent that's challenging, it's building the impacts of that travel into training and regeneration routines to keep players at something near their peak, especially when limitations on charter flights restrict clubs to commercial schedules. Add in extreme weather shifts and artificial turf, and the rhythms of life in MLS can represent a real challenge to players anything less than fully fit.
Ibrahimovic can at least be sure of a first-class seat on the forthcoming flights; Galaxy team administrator Zack Murshedi block-books six to eight first-class seats on each flight as soon as the MLS schedule comes out, and these are generally allocated on the basis of who is scheduled to play, and then generally by age, which would naturally include Ibrahimovic, even if he weren't a world superstar.
Murshedi does his best to accommodate everyone as comfortably as possible, even if it's as simple as making sure a tall player gets an aisle seat for some extra leg room. Experience has been a cruel teacher in that regard.
"We had a player go into back spasms at the end of a flight once, and they had to be taken off the plane in a wheelchair," he told ESPN FC. "We've had players with back issues on long flights that have kept them out of games."
Murshedi works with Pierre Barrieu, the club's director of sports performance, to brief players on what to expect and to work around the air timetable to create workable routines.
"Houston's not too bad because it's a 5:30 kickoff, so we'll fly the day before," Murshedi says, as he runs through a mental inventory of what's coming up. "Dallas, the game is at 12:30, so we'll need to fly out two days beforehand, and then Montreal is a difficult one."
Road games in cities as far flung as Montreal are where the support staff truly come into their own, as they try to mitigate the effects of travel.
"With European players in particular," says Murshedi, "you are trying to make sure that, say, someone like Ashley Cole is briefed when he first comes here, to make sure he knows there'll be a six-and-a-half-hour flight and that he needs to wear compression pants, get up during the flight, and has all the dietary recommendations to prepare.
"Then we'll get to Montreal at 8 at night, because of when the available flights are, and by the time we've cleared customs and got to the hotel, it's nearly 10 at night and you have to lay on a meal for players who haven't eaten all day. Oftentimes we'll organize a special light training session when they arrive, just to get them moving again."
The team is allowed four single-leg charter flights a year, and tries to use them sparingly, mostly for playoff games, though occasionally to compensate for quirks in the schedule. Those come up every year. This season, for example, will see the Galaxy fly to Boston on July 14 and then Philadelphia on July 21, before returning for the first L.A. derby at the Banc of California Stadium five days later.
If Ibrahimovic wants to have the same impact on that game as he did against LAFC at StubHub Center, he'll have a lot of miles to put in smartly between now and then.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, FourFourTwo and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @grahamparkerfc.