Players from Mexican club Puebla had had enough. It was an exhibition against D.C. United before a small, midweek crowd at Buzzard Point, and when the referee looked away, they swatted at their irritant, forward Quincy Amarikwa. There were slaps and an alleged punch.
Some players gain advantages with speed or strength. Others have superior technical ability. Then there is Amarikwa, a well-traveled forward in his first season in Washington who uses Jedi mind tricks and psychological warfare to unnerve opponents.
During stoppages, he will stare at a foe with widened eyes and a broad smile, his index fingers pointed at his temples. It’s not hard to read his lips: “I’m in your head."
During a recent interview, that phrase was plastered on his black T-shirt, in small letters below “MSL,” short for Mental Strength League, which has become his brand and philosophy.
Last month, he applied his cerebral tactics on Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Los Angeles Galaxy’s 6-foot-5 superstar. Despite giving eight inches, Amarikwa marked him on corner kicks and harassed the ever-dangerous Swede, who did not score during United’s 2-1 home victory.
“I got all inside Ibra’s mind,” he said. “We are developing land there now and building a couple of skyscrapers and put a building in the middle that says, ‘I am in your head.’ The rent is free. Anyone and everyone, come join us.”
Other Galaxy players were targeted as well, prompting shoves and Amarikwa rubbing his eyes to imply they were crybabies.
His Twitter page features an edited photo of him and Ibrahimovic, plus emoji of fingers pointed at a head.
Amarikwa, 31, attributes his longevity — six teams, including San Jose twice, and four in-season trades — to doing blue-collar tasks, such as keeping the ball while others join the attack and drawing fouls in dangerous spots. It’s the kind of stuff, he lamented, that is not quantified (and, by extension, not monetized) in soccer.
Yes, he also scores once in a while: This year, he has pocketed one goal in league play (a terrific volley to forge a draw against New England) and one in each of the three international friendlies, including the 1-1 draw with Puebla. Amarikwa has appeared in 19 of 30 MLS matches and started twice.
His reputation as a hard-working, athletic forward “is my fail-safe,” Amarikwa said. “It’s going to be very difficult to beat me when the best part [of my game] is my psychological advantage over you.”
His language, Amarikwa said, never crosses the line. “I am not saying anything that would question my integrity,” he said. “They are definitely calling me a lot of not family-friendly words. You just agree with them and say: ‘Yes, I am that. Hell, yeah, I am that, too.’ ”
The fact opponents are taking the time to confront him, Amarikwa said, proves his tactics are effective.
Asked whether referees warn him about his chatty ways, Amarikwa said: “The referees are probably annoyed with [the opposition] complaining every three seconds, crying about me talking. How soft are you?”
In a whiny, high-pitched voice, Amarikwa mimics what he says he hears opponents say.
“Ref, he is talking to me! Tell him to leave me alone. I am a professional athlete. Ref, he asked me a question. Tell him to stop it!”
Teammate Paul Arriola has overheard Amarikwa’s exchanges.
“He is a funny guy,” Arriola said. “He does a lot of repeating what they are saying. They are looking at him like they have no clue what’s going on. I’m looking at Quincy like, ‘You are a fool.’ ”
United acquired Amarikwa as a free agent just before the season opener to provide front-line depth behind top scorer Wayne Rooney. (Late this summer, he dropped on the depth chart when Ola Kamara signed.) Representing himself, Amarikwa signed a one-year guaranteed contract for the senior minimum salary ($70,250).
The organization knew it was getting a savvy player who wears down opponents physically but also brings unique intangibles.
“Most players I have coached, you can put in bucket A, bucket B, C, D, right?” Coach Ben Olsen said. “He is in a different bucket. I like people that are different and have different ideas. He is a very intriguing guy.”
Amarikwa has delved into the business world, preparing for life after his playing career. His pursuits include online marketing and asset management.
He does a lot of talking not only on the field, but off it. He engages teammates in deep conversation, seeking to understand how they think and why they make certain decisions.
Not everyone appreciates all of it. “It’s exhausting,” one team member said on the condition of anonymity.
At first, Olsen was not sure Amarikwa would fit into the group, and two months into the season, the club thought about releasing him, multiple people close to the team said.
“He comes with a lot of ideas,” Olsen said. “He pushes guys to think outside the box, and more times than not, that’s healthy. He has found his groove with the group; I don’t think that was always the case.
“I don’t completely understand him, but I am trying to make an effort to understand him more.”
After a recent training session, Amarikwa and Olsen conversed on the field out of earshot of staff and reporters for some 30 minutes.
“That’s the minimum with Quincy,” Olsen said, laughing.
While his in-house relationships have strengthened — most players seem to like him and respect him, and he is close with captain Rooney — Amarikwa sees value in his multifaceted contributions on the field.
“I figured out something you don’t know and I am better at it than you are,” he said as if speaking to opponents. “The problem is you might not like what it looks like, but the fact you don’t like what it looks like means I am in your head — and I’ve already won.”
D.C. United at Portland Timbers
Where: Providence Park
When: 3:30 p.m. Eastern time Sunday
Records: United: 11-10-9, 42 points; Timbers: 13-11-4, 43 points.
D.C. probable starters: GK Bill Hamid; D Russell Canouse, Frederic Brillant, Steve Birnbaum, Joseph Mora; MF Felipe Martins, Junior Moreno, Lucas Rodriguez, Paul Arriola; F Wayne Rooney, Ola Kamara.
Portland probable starters: GK Steve Clark; D Jorge Moreira, Bill Tuiloma, Claude Dielna, Jorge Villafaña; MF Diego Chara, Andy Polo, Diego Valeri, Jeremy Ebobisse, Sebastian Blanco; F Brian Fernandez.