Defenses be damned, Messi keeps doing the impossible

6 Comments

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.

[All 2014 World Cup news]

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.

MLS Snapshots: Opara scores a bike, SKC win; SJ thump RSL

Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
Leave a comment

The game in 100 words (or less): I’m going to start by quoting myself (re: Sporting Kansas City), via Twitter: “This team is better in June than it was in March, and will be better in October than it is in June. Just steadily progressing.” Saturday’s 2-1 victory away to LA Galaxy (just their second road win of the season, and the team’s fourth and fifth away goals in 10 games) is the latest sign of progress for Peter Vermes’ side, as they extend their lead on the rest of the Western Conference to five points. Roger Espinoza and Ike Opara scored the visitors’ goals — the latter coming in spectacular, most unexpected fashion — before the hosts pulled back to 2-1 through Dave Romney late in the second half. LA, meanwhile, sit sixth in the West, one point clear of the wrong side of the playoff cut line.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

22′ — Diop’s howler puts SKC up 1-0 — Sometimes — and this is one of those moments for Clement Diop — you just want the ground to open up and swallow you into the middle of the Earth.

35′ — Opara rides his bike to 2-0 — Ike Opara, a center back, scored a bicycle kick from a long ball played to him by Matt Besler, Sporting KC’s other center back. It’s a sequence of events you won’t see again for a long, long time.

59′ — Smith goes through Feilhaber, who is subbed off — Baldomero Toledo allowed Nathan Smith to stay on the field after this “tackle” on Benny Feilhaber.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Ike Opara

Goalscorers: Espinoza (22′), Opara (35′)


San Jose Earthquakes 2-1 Real Salt Lake

Three Two moments that mattered

13′ — Hoesen blasts a loose ball past Rimando for 1-0 — If you fail to clear the ball anywhere inside 12 yards, you’re probably going to get scored on. Danny Hoesen got all of this one.

68′ — Hoesen sets up Ureña for 2-0 — Hoesen’s speculative through ball found its way into space, and Marco Ureñat took it from there, putting the game away and handing RSL their eighth loss in 11 games.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Danny Hoesen

Goalscorers: Hoesen (13′), Ureña (68′), Hernandez (90+4′)

MLS Snapshots: Hat trick for Accam; MNUFC come back from 2-0

Photo credit: Chicago Fire / Twitter: @ChicagoFire
Leave a comment

The game in 100 words (or less): All hail King David Accam, the newest superstar of MLS — except, well, you know, he’s been doing this for a couple years now. It’s not his fault you hadn’t already taken notice. For too long, it was Accam and not much else for the Chicago Fire, who finished bottom of the league two straight seasons, in 2015 and 2016. Now, with the likes of Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic and Bastian Schweinsteiger joining him in Bridgeview, Accam has ascended to his rightful throne as an MVP candidate. The 26-year-old Ghanaian international strengthened his case on Saturday, bagging three goals and an assist, playing a key part in all four goals, in Chicago’s 4-0 drubbing of Orlando City SC. Accam’s season stats now sit at 10 goals and six assists, for the Eastern Conference’s second-place team. If these kind of performances persist, don’t be surprised when Accam follows in Fabian Castillo’s footsteps, right off to Europe.

[ MORE: Transfer rumor roundup ]

Three moments that mattered

8′ — Accam rounds Bendik for 2-0 — The long-ball distribution from Bastian Schweinsteiger is perfect, but Accam still has a ton to do from there. He corrals the ball with his first touch, quickly goes around Joe Bendik, gets his wits about him and fires through an opening to make it David Accam 2-0 Orlando City SC. This one came just six minutes after his brilliant backheel finish for the opening goal.

52′ — Accam sets up Nikolic for 3-0 — The time and space afforded Accam is inexcusable from Orlando’s midfield remaining players in their defensive half of the field, but the through ball still required inch-perfect precision to find Nikolic.

63′ — Accam converts from the spot — No doubt about this one, as Accam slams home from the penalty spot to complete his much deserved hat trick.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: David Accam

Goalscorers: Accam (3′, 8′, 63′ – PK), Nikolic (52′)


Minnesota United 2-2 Vancouver Whitecaps

Three moments that mattered

45+2′ — Tchani heads a rocket past Shuttleworth — You’re not going to find many headers with more power behind them than this one from Tony Tchani, anywhere in the world, anytime.

50′ — Calvo heads down and past Ousted — Take, for example, Francisco Calvo’s goal five minutes into the second half… not quite as much behind it.

63′ — Thiesson hits it low, through traffic, for 2-0 — Jerome Thiesson’s equalizer needed eyes to make its way through a penalty area full of bodies.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Kevin Molino

Goalscorers: Techera (17′ – PK), Tchani (45+2′), Calvo (50′), Thiesson (63′)

MLS Snapshots: Manneh inspires Crew SC; Philly, Atlanta win at home

AP Photo/Jay LaPrete
Leave a comment

Columbus Crew SC 4-1 Montreal Impact

Three moments that mattered

17′ — Higuain’s free kick beats Bush — Aided by a slight deflection off the top of the wall, Higuain put a free kick past Evan Bush to give the home side an early lead.

70′ — Manneh makes an immediate impact — The initial ball from Higuain is what you came here for, but the elementary defending by three Montreal defenders is what’ll keep you glued until the very end.

72′ — Manneh sets up Kamara for 3-1 — Kekuta Manneh had been on the field for all of three minutes, and he put a goal and an assist to his name. Most importantly, three points to that of Crew SC.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Federico Higuain

Goalscorers: Higuain (17′, 88′), Jackson-Hamel (19′), Manneh (70′), Kamara (72′)


 

Philadelphia Union 1-0 D.C. United

Three moments that mattered

28′ — Blake gets down to deny Harkes from distance — Ian Harkes had picked out a spot just inside the far post, but Andre Blake was well up to the task of denying DCU’s homegrown rookie.

31′ — Picault slams Bedoya’s cross — Alejandro Bedoya’s cross has some serious loft on it, which it makes it so tough to keep the ensuing shot low and to hit it with such power. Fantastic finish from Picault.

70′ — Blake stone-walls Neagle from the spot — It’s a pretty poor penalty from Lamar Neagle, but it’s a massive moment so badly needed by Andre Blake who’s been well off his own standard this season. Don’t be surprised if it’s a season-turning save for the talented Jamaican.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Andre Blake

Goalscorers: Picault (31′)


 

Atlanta United 1-0 Colorado Rapids

Three One moment that mattered

67′ — Martinez turns and beats Howard for the game’s only goal — You can’t give Josef Martinez this kind of space, and this kind of time, around the six-yard box. He’s shown us seven times already this season (in just seven games) how deadly he is from there.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverageStandings | Stats | Schedule ]

Man of the match: Josef Martinez

Goalscorers: Martinez (67′)

VIDEO: Accam’s slick backheel puts Chicago ahead

Leave a comment

For the last two years, David Accam has been, in my estimation, the best player in MLS that no one talked about.

[ MORE: NYCFC run rampant on Red Bulls, win NY derby 2-0 ]

Understandably so, of course, given the 26-year-old Ghanaian international and the Chicago Fire been rooted to the bottom of the league table for two years running. All of that has changed in 2017, though, as Accam finally has a forward (Nemanja Nikolic) who can not only put chances away, but create space and chances for his teammates, and a solid midfield base which allows him to cherry-pick counter-attacks just that little bit more.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s MLS coverage ]

Entering Saturday’s game against Orlando City SC, Chicago sat second in the Eastern Conference, just four points back of Toronto FC, and Accam’s 7 goals and 5 assists (in 15 games) were a huge part of the why and the how. It didn’t take Accam long — two minutes, in fact, to put Chicago ahead of Orlando with a ridiculous backheel finish to Matt Polster’s cross.