Zlatan in the wrong? Galaxy teammates defend Ibrahimovic after RSL clash

CARSON, Calif. – Zlatan Ibrahimovic's teammates didn't see anything wrong with the striker's actions in the LA Galaxy's 2-1 victory Sunday evening over visiting Real Salt Lake, nor with Nedum Onuoha's postgame response. It's all part of the game.

The Swedish striker has a knack for getting into opponents' heads, and it's worked out pretty well over the past two decades as he evolved into the game's most deadly target man. The antagonistic approach played out in his favor at Dignity Health Sports Park, too, where he netted the 78th-minute winner.

Onuoha, RSL's English center back, wasn't happy with Ibrahimovic's tactics and refused to shake hands when the league’s biggest name visited the opposing locker room after the final whistle.

“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,” Onuoha continued. “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.”

The two were yapping most of the match, and the tête-à-tête intensified when Ibrahimovic grabbed Onuoha from behind, spun him around and sent him tumbling to the turf near midfield in the 60th minute, picking up a yellow card for his trouble.

Welcome to Ibra's world.

“I just think Ibra is, obviously, an interesting character, and he's going to be a little more aggressive than, I think, players [Onuoha battles], and it probably caught him off guard,” midfielder Sebastian Lletget said following LA's training session Wednesday morning. “He probably won't come up [against] anybody like Ibra in a way, that presence and his emotion. But it's in the moment, that's the way Ibra expresses himself, which maybe sometimes isn't ideal, but that's what he does.”

The verbal and physical jousting isn't rare in the game, though Ibrahimovic has mastered the gamesmanship and used it to better his performance. He wouldn't talk about specific incidents nor his visit to the RSL locker room during his postgame media session – “What happens on the field stays on the field” is his response to all such queries – but acknowledged his actions were meant to bolster his presence after seeing so little of the ball in the game's first hour.

“I like to feel alive,” Ibrahimovic, who wasn't on the field Wednesday and didn't speak with media, said after the game. “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.”

Nothing new. And hardly something rare.

“He gets into it with people every game,” center back Daniel Steres said. “It's what gets him going.”

Head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto, who played in Argentina and with the Columbus Crew, said that such tactics were normal in the game and that “nothing happened.”

“It's gamesmanship,” Lletget said. “He's just trying to get in your head. It's competitive edge, you know what I mean? At the end of the day, that's Ibra's goal. He's trying to get in your head to be competitive. I don't think he's going to take it off the field. Like, Ibra didn't come to us and start talking bad about a player. It's just in the game.”

Onuoha did take it to the media. The Galaxy, who play Saturday afternoon (2pm ET | ESPN in US; TSN in Canada) at New York Red Bulls, don't have a problem with that.

“If he didn't like what Ibra was doing, it's his right to act that way,” Steres said. “That's what Ibra does, that's what gets him going, and he got the best of [Onuoha] on the field, and that's all that really matters to him. [Onuoha] even got a little apology. ... If he wants to accept it or say what he wants [to say], by all means, let him do that.”