Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s MLS debut was such a big deal league-wide that after boarding their flight from Toronto to Salt Lake City, several Real Salt Lake players huddled around one phone to watch him score his first goal before takeoff. Now, the Galaxy are 2-5-1 in the past six weeks and Ibrahimovic has scored just two goals in that timespan.
“Zlatan is an incredible player. World-class,” said Petke, whose team faces the Galaxy Saturday night at the StubHub Center. “I’ve had experiences with players like that, [Thierry] Henry to name one. I could tell you that I think that sometimes it’s difficult for a team to adjust in the short term, as soon as they get here, to the personality of Ibrahimovic, the level of him, his aura, all that put together.”
The general consensus among RSL players and coaches is that the Swedish superstar is still good for the league and for the Galaxy — they just haven’t figured out how to translate that into results yet.
L.A. went on a four-match losing streak from April 21 through May 12, and the two MLS wins and a draw in the month since have come without Ibrahimovic on the field for at least a half.
The league has seen the phenomenon of a team playing better without its best player before, and it likely will again.
Even in the midst of a frustrating couple of months, Ibrahimovic is heavily invested bringing success, as he’s always been able to do before, to his new team.
“Either I wake up, and I take care of it, or we all wake up,” he told reporters after the fourth match of the Galaxy’s losing streak.
He missed the second half of the next match when he saw a red card for slapping Montreal’s Michael Petrasso on the side of the head, and L.A. won 1-0. Ibrahimovic was out for the Galaxy’s next win, 1-0 over San Jose, due to the resulting suspension. He returned to score a brace against Dallas (and a third goal was nullified for an offside call), but his late heroics weren’t enough to lift his team out of a three-goal deficit.
The Galaxy may not have figured out how to maximize the former Manchester United forward’s impact on the team, but he’s still a threat. And RSL is preparing accordingly.
“Double team him,” Petke said about limiting Ibrahimovic. “Keep somebody around him at all times, know where he is. He’s a special player obviously so you just have to be aware of him. And not only him, but the runs off of him. If you converge too many guys on him then it leaves other players open. So it’s about balance.”
RSL assistant coach Tyrone Marshall said his message to the back line, especially the younger players, was to not get caught up in the chatter, but get a good clean knock in to give him something to think about. Frustrate Ibrahimovic with their play.
“I think when everybody’s career’s over,” veteran goalkeeper Nick Rimando said, “playing against a guy like that, they’re going to look back and see how special it was. But I think on Saturday the message always has been go out there and battle for 90 minutes.”
RSL AT L.A. GALAXY
Kickoff • Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MDT
TV • KMYU
Radio • 700 AM
Records • RSL 7-6-1, Galaxy 5-7-2
Last meeting • RSL 1, LA 1 (Sept. 30 at StubHub Center)
About the Galaxy • The Galaxy have a slight edge on the all-time series with RSL, with a 14-13-9 record. Last year RSL was the only team to score six-plus goals on the Galaxy in a single match, kicking off a strong second half of the season on July 4.… Defender Rolf Feltscher is sidelined due to shoulder surgery.
About RSL • With Saturday’s match, RSL wraps up a stretch of five matches in 15 days. … RSL Goalkeeper Alex Horwath (achilles), midfielders Jordan Allen (knee) and Luke Mulholland (back), and defenders Tony Beltran (knee), Shawn Barry (knee), and Demar Phillips (ankle) remain sidelined due to injury. … Winger Joao Plata (back) is questionable for the match.