Joe Posnanski

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.

[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.

As loss to Belgium exemplified, time is now for US to develop game-changing players, style

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Every now and again, it is fun to think about: What if just ONE of America’s greatest athletes had played soccer instead? What if LeBron or Cam Newton or Mike Trout or Adrian Peterson or Patrick Kane had chosen soccer instead of their sport?

Tuesday, I think, we saw what it might have looked like: It might have looked just a little bit like Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku.

Did you see him? Holy cow: Did you SEE him? Apparently Lukaku has been disappointing for much of this World Cup, listless, indifferent, unready for such a big stage. That, I guess, is why he was a substitute on Tuesday. Lukaku is only 21 years old, and he has spent much of his young career in the Premier League getting loaned out. He’s clearly trying to find his place.

But talent? Absurd. He’s 6-foot-3. He’s brilliantly fast – have you seen that Quicksilver scene in the new X-Men movie? Yeah, he’s like that fast. Most of all, he’s just overpowering when he runs. Like Peterson. Like LeBron. The Guardian named Lukaku one of the 10 most promising players in Europe.

And Tuesday, in extra time, he came in and he made the World Cup his own by running through a game but tired United States defense again and again – unstoppable, unbreakable, untouchable. It was mind-boggling. The United States would send one, two, three defenders at him and he would just smash through them. He set up Belgium’s first goal by simply running through a stumbling U.S. defender. He scored the second with a powerful run to the near post where he shielded off the defender and left-footed a smash past goalkeeper Tim Howard. He had various other moments that almost ended up as goals.

[MORE: Belgium sinks U.S. in extra time, advances to World Cup quarterfinals]

The United States has had many good soccer players. They’ve had scrappy defenders and tough midfielders and blazing fast forwards. Their goaltender, Howard, put on a display for the ages against Belgium with 16 saves, the most ever recorded for a World Cup game. He’s one of the best goalkeepers in the world; America has had a few good goalkeepers. Well, we’re good with our hands.

[MORE: Howard’s heroics not enough in ‘heartbreaking’ U.S. World Cup exit]

But they’ve never had a Romelu Lukaku. Or, more to the point, America’s Romelu Lukakus have spent the last few decades driving hard to the basket, plowing through linebackers and crashing into fences after long fly balls. What kind of goal scorer could Barry Sanders have been? How about Dave Winfield? What about Tim Tebow?

So far America has never had that soccer force who can scare the heck out of the rest of the world. So far America has not had a player who can take over games the way Lukaku did. And it seems that until American soccer has a Lukaku (never mind a real soccer genius like Messi or Neymar), a player capable of making magic time after time, this round of 16 business just might be their limit.

Oh, make no mistake, this was a very nice World Cup for the United States. Few thought they could escape the so-called Group of Death, with Germany and Portugal both ranked in the FIFA Top 5 and the added bonus of Ghana, the country that ended America’s last  two World Cups.

It wasn’t easy. The U.S. scored almost instantly against Ghana this time, then withstood a furious barrage, and finally scored a late game-winner. The U.S. outplayed Portugal and should have come away with a victory but took the draw after a singular bit of magnificence from Cristiano Ronaldo. Then, even in a loss to Germany, they showed will and gritty defending against a clearly superior team.

What they rarely showed, though, was brilliance. Throughout the tournament, the key word was “possession” – the U.S. gave the ball away again and again … they could rarely build any sort of sustained attack because they couldn’t keep possession long enough. A team can have some success at the World Cup with a well-organized defense and a couple of lightning-bolt goals. But sooner or later, that style runs its course.

[MORE: USA player ratings vs. Belgium  |  Signs of progress small, but clear]

Yes, the United States could have beaten Belgium on Tuesday – if Chris Wondolowski had punched home that remarkable chance in the final minute of regulation, the United States surely would have won. But talking about missed chances in soccer isn’t especially helpful; if Howard had not been Superman, the United States would have lost 6-0. The bigger point was the U.S. was thoroughly outplayed by a much more talented team. The U.S. might have stolen the game, but it would have been just that: A steal. Belgium was much, much better.

And if the U.S. is to take the next step, they cannot go into games where they are thoroughly outclassed. The U.S. needs to develop some players who go beyond tough, beyond rugged, beyond resilient and fit and hard-working. They need to develop some players who can do wizardry.

This is something people have been talking about for decades – the “when will America develop a world-class player” stories were written 30 or 40 years ago – but I suspect the time is now.

Sure, people will keep arguing about soccer’s place in the American landscape. Some will point to the extraordinary way this World Cup took hold in the United States. Others will point to the extremely low ratings of MLS. Some will see the trend of young people embracing soccer. Others will point to the many years of youth soccer dominance in America and how little impact it has had on soccer as a spectator sport. That argument isn’t stopping anytime soon.

But wherever soccer ends up on the great American sports spectrum, there is no question that this is a moment for the team to build on. Two young players – DeAndre Yedlin and Julian Green – had auspicious debuts this World Cup. But there’s something else, too.

You know the story of Pelé, right? He was 10 years old in 1950, when his home country of Brazil lost to Uruguay in one of the most famous matches ever played. The young Pelé saw his father crying after the loss. Pelé went up to his father and said, “Don’t worry. One day, I will win it.”

Something like that could very well have happened at this World Cup, too. This was the most-watched World Cup in American history and by far the most talked about. So maybe a 10-year-old who plays all the sports – maybe a whole bunch of 10 year olds – saw the brilliant passing of Ronaldo, the magic of Messi, the sheer physical sway of Belgium’s 19-year-old wunderkind Divock Origi and his replacement, Lukaku. And maybe they thought, “That’s what I want to be.”

The U.S. fell in the round of 16 for the second straight World Cup. They played hard, and they held up well, and they gave us a final 15 minutes to remember, and they were not good enough. But if those kids were watching … this could be the most important result in U.S. World Cup history.

No illusions: Unconventional Klinsmann instills confidence in United States

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So it has been, what, a week since we were calling the United States World Cup group (cue scary music, woman shrieking, young child with glowing eyes) the “GROUP OF DEATH.” In retrospect, that might have been a bit of an overstatement. “Group of Moderate Pain” might have been more apt. Or maybe “Group of Pretty Severe Heartburn.” Or “Kind of Tough Group.”

From the start, we probably should have known that the only team in the U.S. group with a real and viable chance of winning the World Cup was Germany. There’s no question about Germany’s awesomeness, which has already been on display. The others? Ghana has been a thorn in the U.S. side in recent World Cups, but come on, they are ranked 37th in the FIFA World Rankings.

Portugal is ranked very high in the World Rankings, but the most intense soccer fans I know seemed to think of them as somewhat insubstantial – a team that relies too much on the singular greatness of Cristiano Ronaldo. With Ronaldo possibly hurt (and possibly not; soccer loves its mysteries) and with the memory of the 4-0 drubbing by Germany fresh in the mind, Portugal has become a 40-to-1 long shot to win it all.

And that leaves the United States – a team very few fans around the world take seriously. Like I say – tough group. But Group of Death? This is a bit like some of the later U.S. Olympic basketball teams still trying to call themselves “Dream Teams.”

*If there is a GROUP OF DEATH out there it probably should be Group D – D for Death – with stunning Costa Rica, Luis Suarez’ inspired Uruguay, perennial power Italy and poor Mother England.

The U.S. has a very real chance to advance with a good performance against Portugal on Sunday – Ronaldo’s health is in question, superb defender Pepe is out – and you can’t help but wonder if all of this is playing out along the strange, serpentine path set out in the mind of the United States’ quirky and outspoken coach, Jürgen Klinsmann.

He’s a fascinating character in every way. You probably know his life story: Klinsmann apprenticed as a baker – his parents owned a bakery famous for its pretzels – but he was a soccer prodigy. According to a superb story Alex Wolff wrote about him in Sports Illustrated before the 1994 World Cup, Klinsmann once scored 16 goals in a youth soccer game. He was a breathtaking scorer his entire career – he became the first man to score three goals or more in three consecutive World Cups. He also was so famous for taking dives that he won England’s heart by taking fake dives after scoring goals when playing in the Premier League.

And he was an iconoclast off the field. He drove a Volkswagen Beetle. He traveled to places like South Africa to learn about the situation there. Wolff reported that he would sometimes sing to himself the German protest song “All People Will Be Brothers” while the German national anthem played before matches. There was something deeper always going on with him.

This was true too when he became coach of the German team. The team was pretty much a wreck going into the 2006 World Cup, and nobody was happy with Klinsmann. The defense was something of a shambles and many thought Klinsmann – always the most aggressive of offensive players – didn’t particularly care about defense. The Sun newspaper’s official 2006 World Cup song was “Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Jürgen Klinsmann?” But the team made it all the way to the semifinal, losing to eventual champion Italy. And cynics had to grudgingly concede that Klinsmann turned out to be good at this too.

[ MORE: Three areas of focus for the U.S. against Portugal ]
[ MORE: Germany’s formation sheds light on Klinsmann’s roots ]

Ever since he took over the U.S. team – the 35th coach in United States soccer team history – he has been shockingly blunt about his mission to make U.S. soccer unlike U.S. soccer. For instance, he cut Landon Donovan – the most famous and perhaps best soccer player in American history – creating a stir. His explanation for cutting Donovan at the time seemed pretty weak; he simply said that others were in better form. But the REAL explanation emerged in his interview with Sam Borden of the New York Times Magazine … with Kobe Bryant being collateral damage.

“This always happens in America,” Klinsmann said, referring to stars becoming bigger than logic. “Kobe Bryant, for example – why does he get a two-year contract extension for $50 million? Because of what he is going to do in the next two years for the Lakers? Of course not. Of course not. He gets it because of what he has done before. It makes no sense. Why do you pay for what has already happened?”

The key sentence in there, I think, is not the Bryant stuff but the line: “This always happens in America.” Klinsmann loves America, has been fascinated with our country since he was young. But there are American qualities that make no sense to him, especially when it comes to soccer. He thinks Donovan is finished as a world-class player. He thinks this is pretty obvious. And he thinks Americans are too sentimental about such matters of mortality.

He also thinks we Americans can be unrealistic – and so he has said point blank, on numerous occasions, that this team can’t win the World Cup. He has said it about 50 different ways. “We are not at the level yet,” he told the Times. And then: “Basically, it’s not possible.”

Think of another coach in any American sport would ever say anything is “not possible.”

But this is Klinsmann and it is part of his effort to make U.S. soccer bend to his will. He coaches a soccer team that has had little-to-no international success and yet recently had a youth program called “Project 2010” because the organizers honestly believed the U.S. would win the World Cup by 2010. He coaches in a country where we never stop believing in American possibility, and we never quite forget that we got to the moon first.

[ MORE: ProSoccerTalk covers all-things USMNT at the 2014 World Cup ]
[ MORE: NBCSports.com’s 2014 World Cup central  |  All-Access ]

So, he has stripped away all illusions. The past is the past. The team isn’t good enough. The U.S. has almost no chance to survive the GROUP OF DEATH. He did not come up with the last one, but I’m sure it suited his purposes.

Then, Monday, Clint Dempsey scored that super-quick goal against Ghana. The U.S. was promptly outplayed for 80-plus minutes. The game was ugly for the U.S. – the team does not often play beautiful soccer, anyway, but against Ghana there were stretches where it seemed they could not complete two passes in a row. Ghana dominated the ball and threatened again and again. But somehow the U.S. fought off the challenges for much longer than seemed possible. And after Ghana did score the equalizer, the U.S. found a way to get a corner kick, and then the ball found the head of John Brooks, who put away the thrilling game-winner.

Now, the U.S. plays a wounded and demoralized Portugal team – with rumors about Ronaldo’s health buzzing – and with a win they are basically through the Group of Death. With a draw, they still have an excellent chance of getting through. This is a much better position than anyone could have possibly expected, and everyone is getting really excited.

But perhaps this sort of hope is precisely the thing Klinsmann has railed again. Portugal has perhaps the best player on earth in Ronaldo, who they insist is 100 percent healthy. Portugal has had quite a bit of success the last 10 years including a fourth-place finish at the 2006 World Cup, and a semifinal at Euro 2012. Portugal has a much richer soccer history than the U.S. Klinsmann, no doubt, wants everyone to understand that the U.S. has little chance of …

“We believe we can beat them,” Klinsmann told reporters this week.

Wait. What?

“We have very good players in this squad, “ he said, “and we have the confidence to go into that game and say, ‘we are here and we want to beat you and get into the next round.”

“It can’t get any better,” he said.

Well, like I say: You never know with Jürgen Klinsmann.

Landon Donovan steps into shadows for US Soccer

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There is an image of Landon Donovan that comes to mind. He was talking a bit about the dark times. You might know that the soccer career of Landon Donovan has been a particularly stark blend of shadow and light, brilliantly bright moments like his earth-shattering goal against Algeria in the World Cup four years ago and gray days when he was not even sure he wanted to keep playing.

The image comes from one of one of those colorless and bleak days when Donovan could not make sense of why he was even playing soccer. He has always been the most introspective of athletes, more artist than jock, and at various times in his life has wondered if this was what he was meant to do. He only started playing soccer because he was such a hyper child that his mother thought running around might tire him out. He scored seven goals in his first game, and the future was laid out.

Well, he was a natural. Donovan was faster than just about anybody — with or without the ball — had a special talent for finding open spaces and he would score more goals on the world stage than any American player ever. He would be a key player — maybe even the key player — in changing the way America viewed the world’s game.

Sometimes, though, he felt this lifelessness on the pitch, as if he had chosen the wrong path in life.

“I used to be on the field,” he said, “and think, ‘Maybe I’ll hear a song that will remind me of my family or where I came from or my wife. Maybe the crowd will get really loud … and that will lift me up.”

Thursday, the U.S. World Cup coach Jurgen Klinsmann left Landon Donovan off his 23-man roster for the Rio. It was one of those singular sports moves that made absolutely perfect sense to some fans and absolutely no sense at all to others.  There was no middle ground.

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On the one hand, Donovan is 32 years old, has been off form lately and a year ago he took a soccer sabbatical that clearly left Klinsmann and others wondering about his motivation and commitment to the sport.

On the other, Donovan is the greatest goal-scorer in American history, was pretty fantastic on the U.S. Gold Cup team just one year ago and, in the words of the London Daily Mail “has more World Cup goals than Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney combined.” Also the sabbatical clearly energized him.

On one hand, the U.S. is stuck in what people are calling the World Cup group of death — with Ghana, Portugal and Germany — and so are unlikely to advance anyway. Klinsmann seems to believe this is the right time, the perfect time, to break from America’s wobbly soccer past — a past Donovan represents. Klinsmann also might very be looking to make the statement that this is HIS team (with several German countrymen to prove it), and Donovan simply wasn’t his kind of player. He has not hidden his distaste for how the American media still celebrates him.*

*It would be tough to not see some personal animosity involved here after Klinsmann’s son Jonathan — a goalkeeper on the U.S. development team — wrote a mocking tweet to celebrate Donovan’s exit finished off with a blunt, “HAHA.” Jonathan deleted the Tweet and gave one of those pseudo “my sincerest apologies to anyone who was offended” apologies. But the point was not lost.

source: Getty ImagesOn the other hand, Donovan was in position to play in his fourth World Cup — putting him in that stratosphere with Pele and Diego Maradona — and he’s the most famous soccer player in the United States, and several of his teammates have been very vocal in their opinion that he belonged on the team. Bruce Arena, the 2006 national team coach and Dovovan’s coach now for the LA Galaxy, was blunt to the San Jose paper one day before the decision: “If there are 23 players better than Landon,” he said, “then we have a chance to win the World Cup.”

When Klinsmann cut Donovan, he made one of those rare decisions that people RABIDLY agree or disagree with — to the point of not even understanding the other side — which made it a perfect Twitter moment. And Twitter, predictably, exploded with soccer fans alternately hammering Klinsmann, defending him and yelling, “You just don’t know anything about soccer” at each other (as soccer fans are inclined to do).

The most fascinating part of this whole story, to me at least, is Donovan himself. He saw this coming, or at least the possibility of it coming, even when others did not. Just two days before the decision he talked about how making the team was no sure thing; he could sense Klinsmann’s wariness. Still, thinking you might get cut and actually getting cut are two different things. There is no doubt that Donovan was crushed by the choice; he did briefly mention his disappointment in a classy thank you note he wrote to fans on his Facebook page.

But, knowing Donovan a little bit, I know his feelings go much deeper than simple disappointment or anger or sadness. Frank Sinatra used to say that a big reason that his singing so deeply touched people was that he had “an acute capacity for sadness and elation.” That’s Donovan too.

At his athletic best, he was a little bit faster, a little bit bolder, a little bit more driven. If you look at his U.S. National team 57 goals, by far a record, what you often see is a young man blazing on the counterattack, sprinting past defenders who look as stationary as trees on the highway, pulling away and putting away the goal and then taking off his shirt and going to his knees to soak in the cheers. That’s Donovan at his boldest and, perhaps, his happiest.

The other times, when he was listening for music or searching for a memory to inspire him, the game was more than just challenging. He developed a reputation among some as soft, but that was never the right word. He was more like a great novelist with writer’s block. His breathtaking sprints would not yield chances. His uncanny sense of anticipation would feel blocked. He would start to think too much. Donovan admits that there are always a million thoughts buzzing around in his head, many of them about what he should be doing with his life. It’s no more surprising that he took a sabbatical from soccer than it is that he came back afterward. Unlike so many great athletes who know one destiny, Donovan was often conflicted.

And I imagine he’s conflicted now — hurt, no doubt, angry perhaps, but also contemplative. He has spent a lot of time considering his talent, his career, his life and what comes after. He has played such a big role in the how our country now consumes soccer, such a big role in making the world sport just a little bit more American. He says he wants to continue doing that; it will be interesting to see what’s next for him.

As for the team, it’s all speculation and the opinions are all over the map, but I’m guessing this would have been a better team with Landon Donovan on it. His form may be off, he may be a step slower, and he might not fit Klinsmann’s vision for this team. But he’s still the most accomplished player in the country, the best-known player in the country, he’s still capable of raising his level, and he has developed as a leader and a teammate.

Klinsmann has a plan, and as coach he should follow that plan, sentimentality aside. Still, when playing in the group of death, Klinsmann might just find that he is short a player who can score goals when he hears the music.

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