Does MLS have a double-standard problem with Zlatan and other stars?
The lion's roar was quieter last weekend.
One week after LA Galaxy forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic made news for alleged verbal threats against Real Salt Lake defender Nedum Onuoha, the Swede let his play get the attention, tallying a goal and an assist in the Galaxy's 3-2 loss to the New York Red Bulls. The verbal fusillades were nowhere to be found.
"He didn't really say anything to us today," said Red Bulls defender Tim Parker about Ibrahimovic.
"[Zlatan] didn't talk trash to me," added defender Aaron Long.
Granted, just about everything that Zlatan does -- no matter how innocuous -- gets noticed. But the incident with Onuoha went up a level. It started in the 60th minute when Ibrahimovic horse-collared Onuoha to the ground, earning a booking in the process. Onuoha alleged that after that incident, Ibrahimovic threatened to injure him. Ibrahimovic got the final word on the field, netting a 78th-minute winner, and proceeded to let Onuoha know all about it.
But Ibrahimovic also felt compelled to go to the RSL locker room afterward in an attempt to continue the conversation. Onuoha was having none of it, however, calling Ibrahimovic "a complete thug" and implying that the Galaxy forward crossed a line and should be punished.
"It's one thing to be competitive but it's another thing to be threatening harm against another professional," Onuoha told Love Sport Radio.
Whether Ibrahimovic crossed a line with his threats is open to interpretation. Every player has his own standard for what constitutes a violation of the unwritten players' code. For every Diego Valeri at one end of the spectrum, there's a Carlos Ruiz at the other. That goes for trash talk, too, and there isn't much that can be done about it, regardless of who is engaging in it.
"It's funny because you look at some other sports now and they've done a good job of curbing that [trash talk]," said D.C. United manager Ben Olsen. "I think in the NBA you probably don't get away with that. But it's a different sport. You can't call a technical [on Ibrahimovic]. You can't put him in a penalty box. What do you do? Give him a yellow? Does the league suspend him? I've got too much on my brain to worry about that. I saw it, I don't know. I think overall, he's been refreshing for the league."
There's also a general sense that such verbal sparring isn't as rare as Onuoha made it out to be. D.C. United defender Steve Birnbaum is of the view that the kind of verbal jousting that took place between Zlatan and Onuoha didn't cross the line.
"[I've] been threatened before," he said, noting that it happened with enough frequency that he couldn't remember who was the offender. "I think it crosses the line if a player deliberately acts on it and tries to seriously injure someone."
Brian Dunseth, who provides color commentary on RSL's local television broadcasts and spent nine of his 10 years as a professional player in MLS, added, "With trash-talking, the threat of physical violence, that's always been there. It's the psyche of two players trying to unsettle each other, whether that's with words or a physical confrontation. I think you'd have a harder time finding someone who hadn't been threatened on the field at any point, as opposed to finding people that have."
Even Onuoha admitted this wasn't the first time he had been threatened, so what was the big deal? The answer to that question is that it wasn't so much what happened on the field, but afterward. Ibrahimovic did cross a line by entering the Real Salt Lake locker room without asking beforehand if Onuoha really wanted to continue the conversation. There simply can't be situations where players can enter the opposing locker room uninvited, especially when emotions might still be running high in a match's immediate aftermath.
"The locker room, that's the sanctity of safety," Dunseth said. "When Zlatan went into the locker room without anybody's approval, that's when a whole other layer got added to this."
Multiple sources confirmed to ESPN FC that RSL complained to the league about the incident, asking in so many words how Ibrahimovic was allowed to be in the locker room of RSL, but a league spokesperson stated that no action was taken.
Which leads to the other aspect of the incident: whether there is a double standard that gets applied in favor of the league's best players, and in particular Ibrahimovic.
"There are certain instances where they get special treatment," Parker said about the high-profile players, "but I guess that's really all you can say."
In last weekend's match, Long was the victim of more than one wayward elbow that required medical attention, although he didn't seem to bear any ill will toward the Galaxy forward. In neither case was Ibrahimovic cautioned. Onuoha, of course, sees a clear disparity.
"I'm not the type of person to say that the better MLS players get preferential treatment, but from what I've seen so far, it's a lot easier to be Zlatan than it is to be the striker for Real Salt Lake," Onuoha said.
It's a topic that most players are somewhat reluctant to get into. It can look like a player on the losing end is making excuses. Birnbaum feels that the scales have begun to tip back in a league where VAR is used as well as retroactive discipline.
"I haven't noticed [a different standard] too much in the games that I've played," he said. "I think that Designated Players draw more attention because of who they are, but I don't think they get certain calls, especially now that they get VAR. I think that evens it out a lot."
There's also the reality that in the case of Ibrahimovic, you're talking about a player with an otherworldly amount of skill combined with his 6-foot-5 frame. That, more than anything, is why he's had so much success in his career. But Ibrahimovic also plays with well-honed edge, whether it's the taunting of opponents following a goal, or the "afters" when he challenges for a ball.
These are tradeoffs MLS is quite willing to accept. The league needs Zlatan's villainy as much as his virtuosity. He just needs to think twice about unsolicited visits to opposing locker rooms. Otherwise MLS may be forced into a choice it would rather not have to make.
Additional reporting by Chris Wondoloski.