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.

Worker dies after falling ill at Qatar World Cup stadium site

In this photo taken during a government organized media tour, workers use heavy machinery at the Al-Wakra Stadium being built for the 2022 World Cup, in Doha, Qatar, Monday, May 4, 2015. Qatar’s inability to ensure decent housing for its bulging migrant labor population was “a mistake” the government is working to fix as it prepares to host the 2022 World Cup, the country’s top labor official said Monday, vowing his country would improve conditions for its vast foreign labor force. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)
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DOHA, Qatar (AP) World Cup organizers say a worker has died after falling ill on the site of one of the stadiums being constructed for the 2022 tournament in Qatar.

[ MORE: The latest FIFA news ]

The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy said Saturday that 48-year-old Indian national Jaleshwar Prasad died after he “fell ill on-site around 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday.”

The statement says that Prasad, who was a steel worker employed on the Al Bayt Stadium project, “received first aid treatment until paramedics arrived. He was transferred to Al Khor Hospital but sadly passed away around 11:30 a.m. Al Khor Hospital reported the cause of death as cardiac arrest.”

It adds that “a full investigation is underway.”

[ MORE: FIFA panel to monitor labor conditions in Qatar ]

Qatar is often criticized by rights groups and trade unions for alleged abuses and deaths on a range of construction projects linked to the 2022 World Cup since it won hosting rights in 2010.

Qatar is relying heavily on construction workers from south Asia.

A FIFA-appointed human rights expert from Harvard University recently advised that tournaments should be moved from countries where abuses persisted.

MLS Snapshot: Montreal Impact 2-2 Colorado Rapids (video)

Montreal Impact forward Didier Drogba celebrates his goal against the Colorado Rapids during first half of an MLS soccer game, Saturday, April 30, 2016 in Montreal. (Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
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The game in 100 words (or less): Dropped points from a winning position are the ones that frustrate and come back to haunt managers more than anything. Twice on Saturday, the Montreal Impact conceded goals from a winning position and were forced to settle for a 2-2 draw with the suddenly rampant Colorado Rapids at Stade Saputo. Didieo Drogba scored another magnificent free kick (video below), but a bit of calamitous set-piece defending on the Rapids’ second goal ultimately meant two points dropped by Mauro Biello’s side, though their hold on the Eastern Conference’s top spot remains intact for one more day (third-place Toronto FC will go top of the East with a win on Sunday). The Rapids, meanwhile, are four games without a defeat and top of the Western Conference for the time being (fourth- and fifth-place LA Galaxy and Real Salt Lake could claim the spot as their own with wins on Sunday and Saturday, respectively).

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three Four moments that mattered

9′ — Drogba’s latest FK beauty makes it 1-0 — If you haven’t loved watching Drogba destroy MLS since his arrival last August, you must be a Toronto FC fan. Or you hate fun, beautiful things, like this free kick.

47′ — Gashi finishes Williams’ cross for 1-1 — Mekeil Williams served the ball across the face of goal, and Gashi made no mistake on the finish, hammering it past Evan Bush to bring the visitors level.

50′ — Tissot hammers home from distance to restore the lead — As they say, this ball stayed hit. Also, it had eyes.

73′ — Burling smashes home from close range — Gashi’s free kick caused all kinds of problems for the Impact defense, leaving Bush unsure of whether to come out and attack the ball or stay on his line. Axel Sjoberg kept the play alive, playing the ball across the face of goal, and Bobby Burling found himself on the right side of his marker.

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

Man of the match: Shklezen Gashi

Goalscorers: Drogba (9′), Gashi (47′), Tissot (50′), Burling (73′)

MLS Snapshot: New York City FC 3-2 Vancouver Whitecaps (video)

New York City FC forward David Villa, left, and New York City FC defender Chris Wingert celebrate Villa's early goal during the first half of the match between New York City FC and Toronto FC, Sunday, July 12, 2015, at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Kevin Hagen)
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The game in 100 words (or less): New York City FC are still Frank Lampard-less (he’s yet to even appear on the bench this season), but at least they’re not seven games without a victory anymore. Having last won a game back on March 6, opening day, Patrick Vieira’s side stole one of the wackier games we’re likely to see all season at — yes, you guessed it — Yankee Stadium on Saturday. From down a goal after 37 seconds, to up 2-1 after a pair of brilliant strikes by David Villa, to staring into the face of another disappointing draw, to late jubilation, being an NYCFC supporter must be super fun awful exhausting. Let’s talk about Villa for a moment: 32 goals and assists combined in 39 MLS appearances. That’s not quite Robbie Keane territory, but alongside Sebastian Giovinco, he’s the only one anywhere close to achieving Keane’s obscene numbers.

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three Four Five moments that mattered

1′ — Saunders gifts Rivero an early opener — It took NYCFC all of 37 seconds to go a goal behind, and Josh Saunders has no one but himself to blame for this one. Octavio Rivero hadn’t scored a goal in over eight months. This is one way to get going.

35′ — Villa clinical with his chance for 1-1 — Khiry Shelton played the through ball into acres of space, and Villa doesn’t miss chances like this one.

41′ — Villa side-volleys from a corner kick for 2-0 — Having Andrea Pirlo serve up delicate set-piece delivery to the back post for David Villa seems a fairly smart “gameplan” by Patrick Vieira. Villa is simply brilliant.

63′ — Bolaños puts home his own saved-PK rebound — Kekuta Manneh was taken down inside the penalty area, and Christian Bolaños nearly blew the penalty chance, but the Costa Rican followed up on the rebound and pulled the visitors level again.

73′ — Mendoza beats Ousted at his near post for the winner — David Ousted will be seeing this one in his sleep tonight. Beaten at his near post by a worm-burner without too terribly much behind it … not great from the big Dane.

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

Man of the match: David Villa

Goalscorers: Rivero (1′), Villa (35′, 41′), Bolaños (63′), Mendoza (73′)

MLS Snapshot: Seattle Sounders 1-0 Columbus Crew SC (video)

Seattle Sounders' Jordan Morris, left, celebrates with teammate Nelson Valdez, right, after Morris scored a goal against the Philadelphia Union during the second half of an MLS soccer match, Saturday, April 16, 2016, in Seattle. The goal was Morris' first career MLS goal, and the Sounders defeated the Union 2-1. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
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The game in 100 words (or less): Slowly but surely, it’s all starting to come together for the Seattle Sounders. Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Columbus Crew SC is the latest proof we have that Sigi Schmid’s side is finding its way and realizing its new, post-Obafemi Martins identity. After struggling mightily the first month and a half of the 2016 season, Saturday’s win saw a side full of attacking intent and, most importantly, ever-dangerous on counter-attacks.  As a newly-committed 4-3-3 side, this season’s edition of the Sounders will have to be much sturdier at the back, adept at attacking down the wings, and ruthless with their inevitably fewer chances. It was the last bit of that that eluded them for much of Saturday afternoon, but Jordan Morris provided the late breakthrough to score his third goal in three games, and suddenly the most heralded homegrown player in MLS history is flying.

[ MORE: Monday’s MLS Rewind column  ]

Three moments that mattered

42′ — Finlay is in one-on-one, blows the finish — The build-up was brilliant, and all Ethan Finlay had to do was beat Stefan Frei with a shot inside of either post. Instead…

50′ — Dempsey heads just over the bar at the far post — Joevin Jones got all the way up the left wing and whipped in a delightful cross to the back post, but Clint Dempsey couldn’t keep his header down and it sailed just over the bar (WATCH HERE).

88′ — Morris bundles home after Clark makes a save — More like Jordan on the Spot, am I right?

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

Man of the match: Osvaldo Alonso

Goalscorers: Morris (88′)