Messi

Defenses be damned, Messi keeps doing the impossible

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No sport stifles the individual more than world-class soccer. In baseball, you can intentionally walk a hitter, in football you can double-team a great receiver or pass rusher, in basketball and hockey you can tilt your defense toward the other team’s star. But only in soccer can you dedicate two or three players to surround a player more or less every minute of the game. It would be like two defenders following that receiver into the huddle and on to the bench.

Only in soccer can you, with enough dedication, make a great player disappear.

Argentina’s Lionel Messi has not scored a goal since the World Cup knockout round began. Teams playing Argentina have tilted the entire axis of their defenses to stop him from being a factor. He hardly seemed to touch the ball at all in Argentina’s penalty shootout victory over the Netherlands. He had one semi-dangerous free kick, one penalty-kick goal, a couple of curtailed runs and two or three interesting passes … but mostly he was silenced by a concerted Dutch effort.

On Sunday, Germany figures to defend Messi with more or less the same intensity and focus. Maybe more. Germany already made the great Cristiano Ronaldo disappear in its 4-0 battering of Portugal back in group play. German teams in the World Cup have long displayed the discipline and will to stifle a single player, no matter how great. This includes the man Messi has most often been compared with, his countryman, Diego Maradona. In 1990, West Germany beat Argentina 1-0 –- Argentina became the first team to not score in a World Cup final –- and Maradona was nowhere to be found.

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But, if you think about the sport, the amazing part is not that teams are able to take out one great player with a concerted effort. The amazing part is that great players EVER break through. The fact that Lionel Messi, four-time World Player of the Year, still does magical things with regularity, even when teams have designed entire game plans to keep him from even touching the ball, is mind-blowing. This, I think, is what makes him the most fascinating athlete in the world to watch.

In South Africa, at the World Cup four years ago, a player told me that if teams tried to defend Messi the way they defend most players, he would score three or four goals every game. This is because no player in the world – not even Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar – can match Messi’s absurd combination of balance, speed, control, power and imagination. Well, no one in any sport can. He is an incredible blend of familiar athletes from other sports -– he cuts and dodges like Barry Sanders, sees the field like Peyton Manning, passes like Sidney Crosby, maintains his balance like LeBron James. When he dribbles forward, the ball seems to stick to his feet, as if attached by Velcro, and with moves so subtle they are invisible at real speed, he makes defenders fall down.

Most of all, though, he is always prepared for the opportunity. This is the most extraordinary part of Messi to me. A soccer match is 90 minutes, and for most of those 90 minutes he is uninvolved. The other team is on the attack. He is being watched closely by three men. He must stand back to keep his defenders away from a teammate. You would expect Messi to be frustrated by this. There’s the classic story of Wilt Chamberlain leaving Kansas to go play for the Harlem Globetrotters. When asked why, he said: “I was tired of being guarded by four guys.”

[PST: If Argentina wins World Cup, will Messi be considered among best ever?]

But Messi does not get frustrated. A handful of times a game -– sometimes one or two times, sometimes five or six -– there is the slightest opening. The opponent blinks. A bad pass leads to a break. A defender slips. There is a tiny loss of concentration. And Messi strikes. In this way, he is not like any of those athletes above -– Barry Sanders would get 25 or 30 carries, Peyton Manning 40 or 50 passes, Crosby and James will have plenty of rushes up the ice and court.

No, in these moments, he’s more like James Bond, surrounded by henchmen, attached to a bomb, dangling over a water tank with sharks. When the moment is right, he has to do something extraordinary because he won’t get a second chance. In the 90th minute against Iran, scoreless tie, Messi gets the ball in a little bit of space, dribbles it to his left foot, unleashes a ridiculous 25-yard strike into the left-corner of the goal. In extra time against Switzerland, with the tournament on the line, Messi breaks through a defense that had mostly quieted him, draws everyone toward him, and drops off a pass to Angel di Maria, who scores the game-winner.

It is often in the later stages of the game, when players get tired and their concentration wanes just a little, that Messi gets his one good chance to do something extraordinary. And, more than anyone else perhaps since Maradona, he takes that chance and does something extraordinary.

The stories coming into the final seem to revolve around a simple question: If Messi leads Argentina to victory over Germany, will he have staked his claim as the greatest player ever? This has inspired long think pieces in various newspapers around the world as people remember Pelé and Maradona and Johan Cruyff and Franz Beckenbauer and so on. It has sparked people like Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho to weigh in (Mourinho says Messi does not need to win the World Cup to have his place among the greatest ever, but either way he is not THE greatest ever).

And that’s a fun one, but the real question is this: Can Messi really lead Argentina against a German side that seems much deeper and better? Will Germany give him even the slightest chance to do something wonderful Sunday? No team can stop Kevin Durant from scoring a basket or Tom Brady from completing a pass or Alex Ovechkin from taking his shots. But soccer is different. German coach Joachim Low has reportedly developed a secret plan to deal with Messi, though I suspect it will look a lot like everyone else’s secret plan: Make him invisible. It will work for most of the game because that’s the sport.

But will there be a chance, two chances, three chances for Lionel Messi to get the ball in a tiny patch of field, slip by one defender, power through another, dribble the ball close like it is on a short leash, crack a shot toward an open corner or flip it to a wide-open teammate only a half-step onside? This is at the heart of Lionel Messi’s brilliance. It is impossible for one person to score a goal when 11 men are determined to stop him. Impossible. Somehow Messi does it all the time.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski.

Is NYCFC showing Mix Diskerud the door? (Photo)

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 01:  Mikkel 'Mix' Diskerud #8 of the USA looks on during the singing of the national anthem prior to their international friendly match against the Korea Republic at StubHub Center on February 1, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. The USA defeated the Korea Republic 2-0.  (Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images)
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Since arriving on the New York City scene two years ago it’s fair to summarize Mix Diskerud’s tenure with New York City FC as a disappointment.

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While the expectations of a quick transition from life in Europe to MLS were surely massive, the 26-year-old midfielder has failed to live up to the billing of not only being one of the NYCFC’s highest-paid players but also as a potential U.S. Men’s National Team candidate.

Diskerud saw his playing time dwindle down from 23 starts in 2015 to nine this past season under new manager Patrick Vieira, and it doesn’t appear that the Norwegian-American will see an influx of opportunities during the upcoming 2017 season.

Rumors have surfaced throughout the offseason about NYCFC potentially buying out Diskerud’s contract, however, the midfielder’s cryptic post to social media on Sunday afternoon suggests that he may not be in New York for much longer.

Somebody told me I'm not part of a plan and if he was I – he'd run like the others ran 'cause the budget is tight and binding contracts might be broken, to improve 5-6 positions – in exchange for only one man. – He went on to say; "the message is clear – unless you're clueless – 'cause you've lived it all'year since the budget is tight and binding contracts might not need to be broken if…. you crack, kneel or leave the hemisphere" – Who could tell so straight and clearly tales of destiny I fight sincerely when mental games are attempting aims to make me rage severely? – On and on the conversation went about money spent and special rules and mgt's tools and something about allocation being different cent – I wish I had right there – my pad 'cause then my favorite line fused by Robin Williams spine would play dead poets – real bad

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It has been suggested that Diskerud would possibly consider a return to Europe in the event that his contract was in fact bought out, however, the difference in salaries would likely be drastic.

According to figures released by the MLS Players’ Union, Diskerud made $761,250 in 2016, which was the fourth-highest salary on NYCFC books behind only David Villa, Frank Lampard and Andrea Pirlo, each of whom were classified as Designated Players.

Report: Aguero seeking Real Madrid move at season’s end

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - JANUARY 21:  Sergio Aguero of manchester City in action during the Premier League match between Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur at Etihad Stadium on January 21, 2017 in Manchester, England.  (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
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Gabriel Jesus was a revelation for Manchester City before suffering an injury, but even with a spot in the lineup for the time being Sergio Aguero may not be coming back to Manchester City next season.

[ MORE: Lucky Man United, Mourinho begin trophy haul ]

According to the Sun, Spanish giants Real Madrid are eyeing up a move for Aguero in the hopes that the Argentine striker will join the club at the conclusion of the Premier League season.

Prior to joining City back in 2011, Aguero played five seasons in La Liga with Atletico Madrid, where he scored 101 goals in all competitions for the Rojiblancos.

While Aguero is likely to hold his starting spot for some time due to Jesus’ injured metatarsal, manager Pep Guardiola had heavily favored the young forward over Aguero since officially joining the club in January.

U.S. U-20s paired with Mexico, El Salvador in CONCACAF knockout round

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Tab Ramos’ side completed their first task, but now the U.S. Under-20 national team has its next challenge lying in front of them.

[ MORE: Whitecaps acquire Brek Shea from Orlando City in trade ]

The U.S. U-20s finished second in Group B at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship after winning two of its three group stage matches.

Now, Mexico and El Salvador await the U-20s in the classification stage with a spot at May’s Under-20 World Cup in South Korea on the line.

During the classification round there will be two groups of three teams, with the top two teams advancing to the World Cup. Each group winner will meet in the CONCACAF Championship final.

Classification stage schedule

Group D

Feb. 27 — U.S. U-20s vs. Mexico

Mar. 1 — Mexico vs. El Salvador

Mar. 3 — U.S. U-20s vs. El Salvador

Group E

Feb. 27 — Panama vs. Honduras

Mar. 1 — Honduras vs. Costa Rica

Mar. 3 — Panama vs. Costa Rica

Claude Puel calls for video replay after Gabbiadini goal called off

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 26:  Manolo Gabbiadini of Southampton takes on Eric Bailly of Manchester United during the EFL Cup Final match between Manchester United and Southampton at Wembley Stadium on February 26, 2017 in London, England.  (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)
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Manolo Gabbiadini performed brilliantly in Sunday’s EFL Cup final, but was the Southampton striker unfairly gipped of a hat-trick?

[ MORE: Lucky Man United, Mourinho begin trophy haul ]

Saints manager Claude Puel certainly believes so.

[ MORE: Three things from Man United’s win vs. Southampton ]

While the back-and-forth final between Southampton and Manchester United presented a tremendous matchup, the Saints had every right to be furious with the officiating in the early going after Gabbiadini’s 11th minute finish was called off for offsides.

“I would like, of course, video in the future for these situations,” said Puel. “It’s very hard when we see this game to lose. It was cruel.”

Gabbiadini went on to score a pair of goals at the tail end of the first half and early in the second stanza, but Puel was pleased with his side’s resilience after going down 2-0 inside the opening 38 minutes.

“We kept the good attitude and spirit to stay in the game after going 2-0 down,” said the Southampton boss. “We played since the beginning of the season every two or three days. We played to a strong and fantastic level. It’s important now to continue this work, to put away this disappointment and come back in the Premier League with this strength and this quality.”

Video replay has been a common discussion for some time now, but more leagues are beginning to examine the possibility. FIFA is prepared to introduce new experimental trials over the coming months and could present a form of replay at next summer’s World Cup in Russia.