Real Salt Lake Tamed Zlatan

Photo: Joseph Barrientos,

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is arguably the most talented player to ever come to Major League Soccer. Zlatan has played for some of the world’s top clubs including Barcelona and Manchester United, where he departed from.

Zlatan was purchased by the LA Galaxy and immediately made an impact with his new club, scoring two spectacular goals as a sub vs. rivals LAFC in his first MLS match. Zlatan captured the attention of America with his unmatched physical presence and unmatched arrogance.

Zlatan overcame a potentially career-ending knee injury that forced his exit from Man U. Zlatan took a team that finished last in points in the 2017-2018 season and made them into a playoff contender overnight.

“The Zlatan” caught fire and became soccer’s biggest story.

You’ll notice that I mentioned Ibrahimovic’s catchy first name an unheralded ten times thus far in the column (don’t tell my English professors, I did it on purpose). That kind of attention is exactly what Ibra pursues. His world revolves around him and he has earned that right.

We’re talking about a player who, five years ago, was considered the best in the world not named Messi or Ronaldo. Zlatan even plays like Messi and Ronaldo do, basically walking around between the two centre backs waiting for a chance to pop up. Saturday night he was in pursuit of his 500th goal as a professional.

That was until he ran into Aaron Herrera and an on-fire Real Salt Lake team.

At the start of the season, if I had told RSL coach Mike Petke that his best back line would be made up of Nick Besler, Justen Glad, Aaron Herrera and Brooks Lennon, I imagine he would have seen the season as a catastrophic failure.

Currently RSL has 44 points and sits happily in 4th place of the fiercely competitive western conference behind their young back line. Injuries have ravaged the 2018 squad and young players have stepped up to the challenge.

The team has adapted to change all season. Coach Petke has used many different lineups to make up for a slow start to the season and the constant bad luck with injuries. Coach Petke has also placed a lot of faith in unproven players and made tough decisions to give less minutes to players with more experience and expectations from the media.

Last week RSL went to Denver to take on the Colorado Rapids. After an early goal by Damir Kreilach and a couple of questionable red cards, Petke’s boys opened up the floodgates.

Midfielders Albert Rusnak and Damir Kreilach were all over the pitch and combined well with wingers Joao Plata and Jefferson Savarino, who scored two goals in the game. The defense was strong and the attacking play was beautiful with the Rapids down to nine men It could have just been a fluke right?

Wrong. After a goal in the first minute by LA’s Jonathan dos Santos, RSL bounced right back. Rusnak and Kreilach (starting at forward) both played incredible matches

Rusnak scored two goals including a world class volley (and hilariously chasing off a befuddled duck who had flown onto the field). He even seemed to have seemed to have infinite space around him to shoot, dribble or pass, and every touch the team made was with purpose.

Kreilach scored a hat trick and absolutely clowned LA goalkeeper David Bingham.

No team in MLS history has ever scored six goals two weeks in a row.

In a lot of ways Real Salt Lake is the exact opposite of LA Galaxy.

RSL started three defenders under the age of 21, and has a roster made up of incredibly smart bargain bin pieces (Kreilach, Stephen Sunny, Besler), young homegrown players (Brooks Lennon, Corey Baird, Herrera, Glad) appropriately paid young stars (Rusnak, Plata, Savarino), and longtime heroes (Nick Rimando, Kyle Beckerman).

LA has a roster full of overpaid, old, “stars” turned MLS flops (Giovani Dos Santos, Romain Alessandrini, Michael Ciani, Ola Kamara, Perry Kitchen, and David Bingham,), a dude who refers to himself in the third person (here’s a hint: it’s not The Dave Romney), and a couple of underrated guys who can really ball (Jona Dos Santos, Ashley Cole, Sebastian Lletget).

RSL currently has eight homegrown players on their roster, five of which played on Saturday; LA has three, and none played on Saturday. RSL uses lots of movement and passing in the channels to create chances to score. LA passes to Zlatan and hopes for the best.

RSL deserves to make the playoffs and LA, in my opinion, doesn’t.

We’re seeing what the equivalent of the Oakland A’s and the New York Yankees, but the this time Billy Beane stomped Brian Cashman.

The point of this column was not to talk smack on the LA Galaxy (even though watching them turn into the New York Knicks of MLS is gonna be a fun time); the point was to applaud the recent tear that Rusnak has led RSL on.

The squad hasn’t lost in thirteen matches. They’ve won ten of those last thirteen.

Early frustration due to injury and lack of production seems to have worn off as guys like Herrera, Lennon, and Baird have been exceptional. Duck chaser Rusnak has scored five goals in the last three matches and his attacking play has pulled RSL to within just five points of West-leading FC Dallas.

Two weeks ago Real Salt Lake had a negative eight goal differential and sat in seventh place in the west. They now have a plus two goal differential, and sit in fourth.

The western conference is insanely competitive this year, but RSL is the hottest team in it.  It’s hard to argue with twelve goals in two weeks. If they continue this level of play, they shouldn’t be thinking playoffs. They should be thinking about lifting the cup all together.

Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by Joseph Barrientos via