Red Bulls more focused on stopping Ibrahimovic than potential trash talk

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Frederic J. Brown
A week after the striker's highly-publicized bout of trash-talking, his next opponent isn't too concerned about what the Swedish star might say

Tim Parker and Aaron Long sat on a bench under a blazing sun at the New York Red Bulls training facility on Thursday, shedding their shirts in order to catch some rays and bask in the first truly hot day of the season.

The Red Bulls center-back tandem will be feeling heat of a different kind on Saturday when they face Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the LA Galaxy, the most dangerous striker in the league and one of the most in-form teams in MLS. The match-up comes a week after Ibrahimovic's highly-publicized run-in with Real Salt Lake defender Nedum Onuoha, who bashed Ibrahimovic for trash-talk during the Galaxy's 2-1 win against RSL.

Ibrahimovic scored the winner that day, but it was Onuoha's comments after the match, where he branded Ibrahimovic a thug and accused Ibrahimovic of threatening to injure him, that drew widespread attention.

The Red Bulls didn't sound too worried about the potential for trash talk from Ibrahimovic, seeing it potentially being just a byproduct of facing one of the league's fiercest competitors.

"If you keep naming names, and throw Ibrahimovic in there, that this is what makes these guys great," Red Bulls coach Chris Armas said. "That there’s moments where if they’re looking for an edge, or if something doesn’t go the right way, they’re coming at you. When you think of Ibrahimovic and (players like) Thierry (Henry).

"I know that everyone’s different. These guys have personality and bite. Michael Jordan would trash talk, right, and he’s the greatest ever.”

Though Armas wasn't known for saying much on the field during his playing days, he didn't sound at all bothered by the notion of Ibrahimovic or any player choosing to talk trash to an opponent.

"Look, he’s a competitor. He’s a winner. We know this. Part of it is, yeah, he’s passionate," Armas said. "When things are going, there’s contact, there’s looking for an edge. In so many ways it makes him different. It makes him good."

The current Red Bulls aren't strangers to Ibrahimovic, having faced him last year in a 3-2 Red Bulls road win in California. A lot has changed from 2018 though. Last season the Red Bulls were Supporters' Shield winners while the Galaxy wound up missing the playoffs despite Ibrahimovic's 22 goals. So far in 2019, the Red Bulls are a disappointing 2-4-2 while the Galaxy are riding a 6-0-1 streak and are just one point behind Los Angeles FC for the best record in MLS.

Ibrahimovic has been the driving force behind that surge, with his eight goals second only to Carlos Vela's 11 among MLS leaders, and his hold-up play is making the Galaxy's other attacking players even more dangerous.

"He didn’t score last year (against the Red Bulls), but he set up both goals. You even look at the RSL game (last week) he had a hand in both goals," Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles said. "That’s really what they spent all the money for. He really makes a difference for his team. Even when the offense isn’t necessarily running through him, it ends up ending with him. These are things we have to be mindful of."

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"In order to defend Ibra it’s not going to be a one-v-one," Robles added. "It’s going to take the entire group knowing where he’s at, but then because of the challenge he creates you can’t just focus on him because they have other good pieces that have been playing well."

There may not be a team better-equipped to deal with Ibrahimovic than the Red Bulls, who boasted the best defense in MLS in 2018, and feature USMNT regular Long and Parker, arguably the league's best center-back tandem. The Red Bulls are coming off posting their first shutout of the 2019 season, but the Galaxy will present a much tougher challenge, not just because of the team's overall form, but because of the dynamic threat posed by ibrahimovic.

"He’s got a presence to him as well. His presence can intimidate people," Parker said of Ibrahimovic. "And then on top of it if he’s talking to you I’m sure it can get to you in a way, but we’re not going to let that happen."

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