Zlatan, Vela rivalry won't spill into ASG - O'Connor
ORLANDO, Fla. -- MLS All-Star coach James O'Connor doesn't expect the war of words between two of the league's biggest stars in Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Carlos Vela to spill over into the North American team's friendly match against Atletico Madrid on Wednesday night.
Less than two weeks ago, Ibrahimovic told ESPN's Ahora o Nunca that he is "by far" superior to Vela, despite the Mexico international leading the league in goal scoring -- six ahead of the Swede. After scoring a hat trick in the LA Galaxy's 3-2 win over Vela's LAFC just three days after his first shot across Vela's bow, Ibrahimovic followed up, saying it was a mistake for anyone to compare the two players.
But O'Connor says that the two are professionals, and he expects the pair to be "fine" as they take on Atletico's newly reconstructed back line.
"Not really any impact, to be honest with you," he said in a news conference on Monday when asked about how the exchange of words between Ibrahimovic and Vela could affect his All-Star team. "I think they're both very professional lads, I don't see anything being an issue, so I think everything will be fine.
"I think both players, and all the guys, are just really excited and just looking forward to the game on Wednesday night."
Vela backed up O'Connor's comments, telling MLSsoccer.com: "I don't have any problem [with Ibrahimovic].
"We'll play together, we come here to have fun.
"It's a great experience to play with some of the best players in this league. We're going to be teammates these next few days, we're going to try to put MLS on a high level against Atletico and enjoy. I think this is an event where everyone enjoys themselves."
What's occupying more of O'Connor's brain space is an issue every All-Star manager is tasked with: building a cohesive team and implementing a tactical structure in just four hours' worth of training sessions. The All-Stars trained together for the first time on Monday, and will do so just once more on Wednesday, before taking on an Atletico side that have been La Liga runners-up the past two seasons and lifted the Europa League barely 12 months ago.
But amid the friendly nature of the All-Star Game, O'Connor is more concerned with his players building relationships with one another and enjoying their experience in Orlando rather than carrying out a tactical plan to upset one of Europe's most talented sides.
"Well I think obviously we have a very short period of time to try to get to know the players," he said. "Obviously we've seen all the players play for their clubs, but I think it's different to get a personal understanding.
"So I think the biggest thing that we try to foster is just to encourage all the guys to try to get to know each other, especially the players who are coming on their own and perhaps don't know as many people. Just to try to create a friendly atmosphere, make sure that the players create that relationship, have a little fun in training."
The All-Stars will get another opportunity to do that in Tuesday's 90-minute session, but that evening's skills competition (8:00 p.m. ET, ESPN+) could be their best chance yet to really let their hair down before Wednesday's encounter with Atletico.