CARSON, Calif. – Zlatan Ibrahimovic was frustrated.
The LA Galaxy striker wasn't seeing as much of the ball as he desired Sunday evening against Real Salt Lake. Drifting deeper and deeper to serve more as a playmaker than target man, he was struggling to stay involved as the Utahns took command in the second half.
So he grabbed RSL's Nedum Onuoha in the 60th minute and spun him to the ground, picking up a yellow card and drawing an angry response from the English center back.
That's what Ibrahimovic was looking for, something to spark something more, something better from himself – and from his teammates. And eventually, that's what he got.
The Swedish superstar finally tallied in the 78th minute, his eighth goal of the season, to lift the Galaxy (7W-1L-1D) to a 2-1 victory that leaves them just a point behind crosstown rivals LAFC in the Western Conference standings with a game in hand, and gave them a 6W-0L-0D start at home for the first time since 1996.
It was no big deal to Ibrahimovic, who took a detour to the RSL locker room as he left the field “to shake their hands, no big deal.”
Except it was a big deal for Onuoha, who jawed with the big striker much of the game and tangled physically several times after the yellow-card incident. The Nigerian-born veteran, who joined RSL in September from Queens Park Rangers, wasn't willing to shake hands and Ibrahimovic had to be escorted out of the room.
“He came in to apologize after the game, because from 60 minutes in, he's saying to me he's going to do me, he's going to hurt me for that game,” Onuoha said afterward. “And this is the guy who's the face of the MLS, as he calls himself, but this is the way he plays on the field.
“So I don't care. Someone comes in and tries to do that to me – you don't say that on the field. I don't care. I'm not going to accept his apology. It's unacceptable.”
Ibrahimovic had little to say about the incident or the reception he received, saying that “what happens on the field stays on the field,” but he had his reasons for taking on Onuoha. RSL's defensive game plan was about denying service into the box, preventing the Galaxy from finding their superstar in dangerous spots, and it worked most of the night.
“I like to feel alive,” Ibrahimovic told media in the Galaxy locker room. “I like when it becomes duels and that, because sometimes – not that I fall asleep, but I don't feel alive if they don't actually activate me. ... When I get angry, I feel good.”
The initial incident served as a spark for the Galaxy, although not right away. Donny Toia's second goal in 113 MLS games pulled Salt Lake (3W-5L-1D) even four minutes later, and the Galaxy didn't create a realistic chance for another 14 minutes, when Ibrahimovic struck.
It was a broken play that fell into place. Defender Diego Polenta chipped the ball toward Ibrahimovic in the box, but RSL center back Justen Glad leapt to redirect the ball, which Sebastian Lletget corralled just inside the box along the left channel. Ibrahimovic wandered toward the near post, and he tucked Lletget's feed inside the far post.
The gamesmanship played out in Ibrahimovic's favor.
“You know him, he loves that stuff,” Lletget said. “He does it to get in [the opposing player's] head, and I think this time it worked. ... And it gives the group a little more energy, a little more fight and grit, you know what I mean?”
RSL head coach Mike Petke was asked if he thought Ibrahimovic got away with more than he should have.
“Listen, everyone's in awe of Zlatan,” he replied. “When you talk about soccer forwards – charismatic, talented, unbelievable players – Zlatan is top of the list. Why should it be any different for the league? The league in general is in awe of him. Do I expect referees to be any different? No.”