Herriman • “Quadruple team him,” Mike Petke said. Then, immediately afterward, Petke almost realized that it’s actually not that crazy of an idea. For the last two decades, coaches and teams all around the world have been scouring game footage, looking for weaknesses in the armor of this near-mythical man, a 6-foot-5, 210-pound goal-scoring, take-no-prisoners punisher with a man-bun, who is most comfortable referring to himself in the third person.
He is Zlatan.
“A beast,” Petke calls him. “The epitome of a man with his strength, with his size and intimidation.”
Even now in Los Angeles, even nearing the age of 37, Zlatan Ibrahimovic refuses to see the guaranteed sunset on what will eventually be recognized as one of the most illustrious careers in the history of professional and international soccer. It’s not in his trademarked showman nature to admit anything other than impending triumph.
It’s how he’s always been hardwired. A giant on the field, known for deft touches with both feet and supreme aerial ability, he has routinely made meals out of opposing teams in the best leagues around. In Italy, he did it for the three biggest clubs in Juventus, AC Milan and Inter Milan. In Spain, he did it with FC Barcelona. In France, with Paris Saint-Germain. In England, with Manchester United.
Zlatan is doing it here, now, with the L.A. Galaxy. At 36, he has served as a jolt in the arm of Major League Soccer, a swaggering forward who smiles as he trash talks and admits that it’s only a matter of time before every fan base around the league falls head over heels for him, the opposition. It certainly helps when you deliver the kind of goals worthy of YouTube highlights. Zlatan has in Year 1. He has 16 goals and seven assists in 20 appearances. Only in five appearances this year has he not had a goal or assist.
“I think he gets highlighted because he puts the ball in the back of the net, you know?” RSL goalkeeper Nick Rimando said.
In his intro to RSL, a game in which he scored two goals, Zlatan and RSL midfielder Sunday Stephen got into it a bit after Zlatan committed a foul near the RSL goal. After L.A.’s 3-0 win, he said those who step up to him in such situations only add fuel.
“It’s like you put gas on the fire, and the first becomes hot, trust me,” he said in June. “And I’m the fire, in this case.”
Even in this twilight stage of his career, Zlatan, it seems, is showing the U.S. what it was missing all these years. That’s, at least, how he views it. He’s become a hit interview on sports talk radio and TV shows. He appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” He even announced his arrival in a full-page ad in The L.A. Times. It was a simple message:
“Dear Los Angeles,
“He’s a unique individual,” Petke said. “He’s an unbelievable player, a winner, every place he’s been, he’s won. And what many people might perceive as cockiness or arrogance is more self-confidence and I think you put all that together and he’s coming over here to make his mark and pretty much win on another continent.”
Rio Tinto Stadium has seen its share of global superstars since opening its doors a decade ago. David Beckham, Thierry Henry and Kaká have all patrolled the field in Sandy. But Saturday night hosting Zlatan and the Galaxy might be historic. Zlatan is sitting on 499 career combined goals for club and country, the Swedish national team. The only other active players who’ve eclipsed the 500-goal plateau? Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
During a radio appearance on ESPN on August 22, Zlatan was asked to comment on what goal No. 500 would mean to him.
“Let’s see who that victim will be for that number,” he said.
It could be RSL, which will be in a fight with the Galaxy for a postseason spot in the next two months. This matchup between the rivals has playoff implications, sure. RSL can distance itself a little further if it can win its third straight match. Conversely, the Galaxy can also pull even with RSL if Zlatan can be Zlatan.
“I’m sure there’s going to be some fans from Utah buying a ticket not to see us,” Rimando said, “but to see him.”
When he was a kid, RSL defender Justen Glad remembers pulling up YouTube reels of Zlatan on his computer. Back then, he was “this guy just banging in goals.” So, all these years later, nothing’s changed. It’s just that he’s here in MLS now, and on Saturday night has a chance to introduce Utah to Zlatan. He’ll do so with a big smile, and potentially a milestone moment.
L.A. GALAXY AT REAL SALT LAKE
At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
Kickoff » Saturday, 8 p.m.
TV » KMYU
Radio » 700 AM
Records » RSL 12-10-5, L.A. 10-9-8
Last meeting » Galaxy 3-0 win (June 9 at StubHub Center)
About L.A. » Zlatan Ibrahimovic leads the team in goals scored (16) and assists (7) since signing with the Galaxy in March. ... He had two goals in L.A.'s 3-0 win over RSL on June 9 in Carson, Calif. ... Jonathan and Giovani dos Santos both trained this week after dealing with lengthy injuries. ... The Galaxy are currently seventh in the Western Conference, three points shy of RSL in the playoff race.
About RSL » Coming off back-to-back road wins, RSL returns home for two matches, starting Saturday night against L.A. ... RSL hoisted the Rocky Mountain Cup after a 6-0 thumping of Colorado last weekend. ... RSL is expecting a potentially record-breaking crowd on hand Saturday against the Galaxy. ... Albert Rusnák and Joao Plata are tied for the team lead in goals with eight. .... Defender Marcelo Silva (ankle) is doubtful.