Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s first year playing for famed Argentine club Boca Juniors was also Diego Maradona’s last. And for the Galaxy coach, Maradona remains the benchmark against which every other player is measured.
“For Argentines, Maradona is the best,” he said. “So I can’t be neutral talking about Maradona.”
But if Maradona was the best, Schelotto said Zlatan Ibrahimovic, his captain with the Galaxy, is no worse than second-best, something he proved again Sunday by scoring the deciding goal in the a 2-1 win over Real Salt Lake before an announced crowd of 20,615 at Dignity Health Sports Park.
“Ibra is in the same level as [Lionel] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo. It’s not easy to get a player like him,” Schelotto said. “If we can find him in the box, we know he will score. For sure.
“I am thankful he’s with us.”
Ibrahimovic’s game-winner goal was historic in its own right since it gave the Galaxy six consecutive home wins to start a season for the first time since 1996, when the team played in the Rose Bowl and the 15-year-old Ibrahimovic was on a youth team in Sweden.
The goal was also Ibrahimovic’s eighth of the season, fourth game-winner this year and 11th game-winner since the start of last season. No MLS player has more.
And Ibrahimovic celebrated it in an unconventional manner, getting in the face of RSL center back Nedum Onuoha, with whom he waged a physical battle all night.
Afterward, Ibrahimovic went into the RSL locker room to apologize but the two men had to be separated, with team administrator Zack Murshedi wrapping an arm around Ibrahimovic and guiding him down the hallway to the Galaxy’s dressing room.
Ibrahimovic was angry through much of the first half in which he played deep, taking just one shot but watching the Galaxy (7-1-1) go ahead on Uriel Antuna’s first MLS goal in the 16th minute.
An RSL defensive error set up the score with center backs Onuoha and Justen Glad letting a low through ball from the Galaxy’s Diego Polenta go between them into the penalty area. Midfielder Chris Pontius ran onto the pass and when RSL keeper Andrew Putna came out to challenge him, he pushed the ball back toward the center of the goal for Antuna, who had an easy finish.
The Galaxy, playing for the third time in 10 days, started the half by pushing the deep-lying Ibrahimovic forward and it nearly paid off in the 48th minute with Putna making a diving save on a header. That allowed RSL (3-5-1) to tie the score with an unmarked Donny Tola tapping in the rebound of David Bingham save in the 64th minute.
The goal was the first Bingham had allowed from open play in six games and 470 minutes. But Ibrahimovic got it back 14 minutes later in predictable fashion.
“Any time you put a ball in the box, he’s going to be close,” said midfielder Sebastian Lletget.
Agreed Ibrahimovic: “When they do, boom, goal.”
Which is pretty much how it happened, with Lletget sending a ball to the edge of the six yard for Ibrahimovic, who one-timed a shot into the back of the net, then immediately went after Onuoha.
“He came into apologize after the game,” said Onuoha, who played eight seasons in the Premier League for Manchester City. “From 60 minutes in, he said he’s going to do me, he’s going to hurt me. This is a guy who’s the face of MLS, as he calls himself. But this is the way that he plays on the field? You don’t say that on the field. It’s unacceptable.”
That protest did little to dampen the celebration in the other locker room though. Sunday’s victory is the Galaxy’s seventh of the season, tying LAFC for most in the league. And with 22 points they are one behind LAFC, which has played one more game, for best record in the league.
The Galaxy didn’t get to 22 points and seven wins last season until lJuly.
“The whole goal of the year is to win a championship and win games. And we’re doing that,” Bingham said. “We have to keep going. We’re only nine games in.”