Columbus Crew SC’s defensive system has been as good as it gets in the 2018 Major League Soccer season as the team has conceded just 19 goals in as many matches, the second fewest in the entire league so far. However, this coming Saturday, it will face arguably its biggest challenge this year in the shape of LA Galaxy’s striker Zlatan Ibrahimović.
The 36-year-old Swedish forward is arguably one of the most renowned players to ever step foot in the league and the Black & Gold will face him for the first time since his arrival last March.
“He’s one of the most iconic players in the last 15 years, so to have him in the league is amazing,” head coach Gregg Berhalter said about Zlatan. “And then to get to see the output, to see the goals he scores, it’s a different level than what you see normally. When we talk about the quality players that ever played in this league… David Beckham, David Villa, Robbie Keane, when we talk about that standard, he’s that standard, it’s ridiculous what he’s been doing.”
Admiration aside, the task at hand right now is to figure out a way to stop Zlatan. In just 13 matches (10 starts) with the Galaxy, the star striker has scored 10 goals, including five in the last three matches, and registered three assists to his teammates. Performances like his debut, when he came off the bench to score two goals in 19 minutes and led his team to a 4-3 come-from-behind victory over rivals Los Angeles Football Club are among the highlights of the season.
According to Berhalter, the trick here is not focusing on shutting the Swedish striker down, but on limiting the damage he can do instead.
“The key is that you don’t stop him,” he remarked. “You know he’s going to get his four or five shots per game and you just hope they are in difficult situations. He took a shot against D.C this week and how he got the shot off so quickly, you don’t see in this league. We’re going to have to be on our toes. If we can limit him to difficult shots, I’ll be happy.”
Defending Zlatan will be a first-time career experience for most Crew SC players, but not for Jonathan Mensah as the Ghanaian has measured up against the Swedish star in France’s Ligue 1. The 27-year-old defender can actually be proud of having helped to keep the striker scoreless the only time they met, when his team, Evian, bet Zlatan’s Paris Saint-Germain 2-0 in the 2013-2014 season.
“I’ve played against him in France and it was tough,” the two-time World Cup veteran recalled. “Team defense is the key. We have to stick to the game plan and remain focused during all the game, because against a player like that, he can score in so many ways. We just need to be vigilant about him and defend 2 v. 1 if needed because he’s a big guy. You just have to play smart against him.”
And being smart, in this case, includes doing what this team does better, which is keeping possession and taking good care of the ball. With the game expected to be played under temperatures of 90 degrees on Saturday afternoon, this could be a very good strategy. After all, he cannot score if he doesn’t have the ball.
“Defending him by having the ball, I’d say it’ll be a big part of it,” captain Wil Trapp commented. “It’s a game on a big field, so we just want to keep the ball and continue to make them chase us. It’s going to be a warm day.”
Other than scoring goals, a player of Zlatan’s stature is capable of making his teammates’ lives easier with his presence alone. It’s not unusual to see other players taking advantage of the space generated by the Swedish movement as he takes a handful of defenders with him any time he steps outside the penalty box.
As Jonathan pointed out, the backline and the defensive midfielders need to be ready to react quickly and cover the space created by Zlatan in dangerous spots.
“He’s very dangerous in front of the goal and he brings this different element to his team,” the defender added. “He can draw two or three players away from the action to create space for others, so you need to prepare for anything. He’s a good player and you just need to be ready for anything.”
A player that could easily benefit from Zlatan’s movement is a very familiar face to Crew SC defenders. Striker Ola Kamara, who spent the last two seasons with the Black & Gold, where he scored 35 goals in 59 games, has already found the back of the net six times in 14 matches with the Galaxy.
Lately, Ola has been deployed as a left winger, but his movement in the penalty box is still a reason for concern for the Black & Gold’s backline.
“We know his movement is very good, his finishing is very good, he likes to run off the shoulders,” Trapp complemented. “When he does get space one-on-one to the goalie, he does a good job. The nice thing is whoever our center backs are, we played with and against him every single day in training, so that’s a benefit for us.”