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How do you solve a problem like the Galaxy’s Zlatan? ‘There’s no secret,’ says Real Salt Lake coach Mike Petke

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Los Angeles Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic (9) gets heavy pressure from RSL during the first half of the MLS soccer match Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, in Sandy at Rio Tinto Stadium.

Herriman • Real Salt Lake head coach Mike Petke has mused in the past about how to contain Zlatan Ibrahimovic, ever since the L.A. Galaxy’s dynamic striker strutted onto the Major League Soccer stage last season.

“Double team him,” the coach said before RSL faced him for the first time. “Quadruple team him,” he said in jest before facing him again.

While the Galaxy experienced some growing pains in their first year having a player like Ibrahimovic, 2019 has been the polar opposite thus far. The international superstar has scored seven goals in eight matches and has led his team to a sizzling 6-1-1 start. The Galaxy have not a lost in six matches, winning five straight before a scoreless draw against Minnesota United on Wednesday. They host RSL on Sunday at 6 p.m. MDT.

Galaxy coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto has even compared Ibrahimovic to household names in soccer.

“Everyone knows when you play against [Cristiano] Ronaldo or [Lionel] Messi what they are,” Schelotto said recently, per the Los Angeles Times. “I feel the same with Ibra. He makes something [happen]. Like Ronaldo and like Messi.”

So after more than a full year of the Ibrahimovic experience, is there any way to contain him in a meaningful way?

Not exactly.

“There’s no secret to Zlatan,” Petke said earlier this week. “He’s a special player. He’s a world-class player. You could prepare for someone like him for a month straight, down to every detail, and there’s a good chance he’s still going to get that goal or make that magic play because he’s a phenomenal, special player.”

There’s no way around it: Ibrahimovic is a nightmare to defend. At 6-foot-5, 209 pounds, his body type alone is an anomaly among soccer players. His size gives the Galaxy a viable target for crosses, so it’s no wonder L.A. leads the league in crosses per game (27), per whoscored.com.

Ibrahimovic is also a master at drawing fouls in the penalty box. Four of his seven goals have come on penalties, and the Galaxy as a team lead the league in those types of goals. Six of his seven goals have come in the penalty area, per whoscored.com.

“He’s strong in the box and around the area,” midfielder Albert Rusnáks said. “He’s got a shot that we’ll have to watch out [for].”

Defender Justen Glad said communication will be key when defending Ibrahimovic, and that the team will attempt to commit two defenders to him for situations where Ibrahimovic is trying to win a ball in the air.

Glad also said RSL’s defense will try limiting the crosses to Ibrahimovic while also forcing him into pressure situations.

“For me, I’m happy as long as his back’s to goal, as long as he’s not turning and having a lot of time and space on the ball to pick out a pass because he obviously has quality,” Glad said. “And then it’s about getting out to those outside guys who are going to whip the service in and hopefully shutting down the amount of crosses that they have.”

Ibrahimovic is clearly a focus of pregame preparation for Real, who split the season series with the Galaxy last year. But when the whistle blows on Sunday, the team will treat both him and L.A. like any other opponent.

“Once you get on the field, it’s just another game,” forward Corey Baird said. “You can’t really think about something like that or else you’re just going to put yourself a step behind.”

Petke said the best way to ensure his players are ready for the challenge Ibrahimovic presents is to continue feeding them information on the Galaxy striker’s tendencies and working through those ideas in training sessions. The coach did say it was a possibility that he’ll have his player man-mark Ibrahimovic throughout the entire game.

But Petke does not want to lose sight of RSL imposing its style merely because it has to worry about Ibrahimovic.

“At the end of the day,” Petke said, “there’s a fine line between overly preparing for the opposition while balancing out that we still want to play the way we want to play.”

REAL SALT LAKE AT LA GALAXY

At Dignity Health Sports Park, Los Angeles


Kickoff » Sunday 6 p.m. MDT

TV » KYMU

Radio » ESPN700

Last meeting » RSL 6, Galaxy 2 (Sept. 1, 2018, Rio Tinto Stadium)

Records » RSL 3-4-1, Orlando 6-1-1

About Galaxy » Guillermo Barros Schelotto is in his first year as head coach. … Ibrahimovic leads team with seven goals, four of which have come on penalties. … They lead the league with five penalty kick goals. … Designated player Romain Alessandrini recently had surgery on his meniscus is expected to be out until September.

About RSL » Erik Holt and Everton Luiz are out, while Luke Mulholland and Marcelo Silva are questionable due to injury. … RSL has won two consecutive games. … Kyle Beckerman has four yellow cards and will be suspended one game should he receive another. … Albert Rusnák leads team with four goals. … Five different players have one assist this season.

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