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MLS quickly realizing: You can’t stop Lionel Messi, you can only hope to contain him

MLS quickly realizing: You can’t stop Lionel Messi, you can only hope to contain him

Lionel Messi (on ground) scores the equalizer in injury time during the second half against the Los Angeles Galaxy. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

The Los Angeles Galaxy had two full months to prepare and two decades of film to study. They had a high-profile date with Lionel Messi and, by Sunday night, a masterplan to halt him. They’d try to “condense the field,” as Galaxy coach Greg Vanney said. They’d try to “isolate” Messi and Luis Suarez “as much as possible,” defender Maya Yoshida added. And for 91 minutes on Major League Soccer’s opening weekend, they succeeded.

But in Minute 92, their goalkeeper’s scouting report proved prophetic.

“It’s Messi. He’s good, man,” John McCarthy said with an incredulous chuckle.

McCarthy had faced Messi last year with LAFC, so a reporter wondered whether he’d relayed any tips to teammates. McCarthy shook his head, and added: “There’s not much you can say.”

And there wasn’t much he could do when Messi pounced on a minor mistake and drove at Galaxy defenders in stoppage time. There wasn’t much any of them could do to protect a 1-0 lead. Their tired legs scrambled and weary brains spun as Messi and Jordi Alba passed and moved into the penalty area.

“When he and Alba connect like that, it’s ridiculous,” Vanney said. “It’s really, really difficult to defend.” It erased an otherwise excellent Galaxy performance; Messi’s goal earned Miami a 1-1 draw. And it highlighted the Herculean challenge vexing every Messi opponent.

“Unfortunately,” Vanney said, “he just slipped away from us for a split second. And that became the difference.”

Ever since Messi joined Inter Miami, MLS coaches like Vanney have been scheming. They’ve dissected Messi’s movements; analyzed his tendencies; and dreamt up tactics to contain him. They’ve stressed the importance of narrowing gaps and closing space. They’ve armed their players with painstaking detail.

But they’ve realized, almost invariably, that Messi masterplans are often futile.

“It is almost comical how much we think we can control things as a coaching staff, at times,” Houston’s Ben Olsen says.

“You are facing one of the most talented players ever in the world, arguably the best — or maybe not so arguably,” says Atlanta United head coach Gonzalo Pineda, whose team lost 4-0 to Messi’s Miami last July. “He's super talented, so at times, it is really difficult to set a collective strategy on how to stop Messi. Honestly, it's almost, like, impossible. Just because he has so many different ways to unbalance you.”

Playing in awe of Messi

Lionel Andrés Messi has been unbalancing or bamboozling fellow soccer players for most of his life, and by now, his greatness is ubiquitous. His greatest hits live in memories and digital archives. His exploits are documented exhaustively, so extensively that every MLS adversary is primed. Every coach’s laptop is overflowing with video. Every team is privy to Messi’s skills and desires.

But that doesn’t mean they’re prepared.

“Until you play him the first time, there's nothing that can prepare you for it,” Philadelphia Union head coach Jim Curtin says.

In August, Curtin drew up gameplans for a Leagues Cup semifinal against Miami. Together with staff, he outlined a plot to man-mark Sergio Busquets and stay in touch with Messi. But before he could even assess its efficacy, his typically solid team had leaked two goals via mistakes.

“Those first 15 to 20 minutes, all of us — from the coaching side, from the player side — we were in awe of the moment. We were in awe of him,” Curtin says. “And by that time, it was 2-0 already. And we were doing things that were uncharacteristic.”

Real Salt Lake had a similar experience last week, on 2024 MLS opening night. “It's only natural, right?” RSL coach Pablo Mastroeni said. “We have a relatively young group. You're coming to Miami, you're playing against Messi, and Suarez, and Busquets, and Alba, guys that they probably grew up watching. And so it's only human to have these types of nerves.”

Mastroeni tried to preempt them. As matchday neared, he emphasized to his players: “There’s a job to do every time the ball moves.” They drilled specific shifts and rotations; they also refined their minds. “If the internal monologue is, ‘I have a job to do now, I have a job to do now,’ then you stay in the present,” Mastroeni said two days prior.

But still, when the game kicked off, he sensed the nerves, that “natural reaction to the moment.” His team seemed to shrink from it for 45 minutes, during which Messi and Robert Taylor combined to put Inter Miami in front, en route to a 2-0 victory.

Once RSL players recovered, and “engage[d] with an intense mindset,” as Mastroeni said, they realized that Miami “can make mistakes as well … that they are human.”

“I think it came down to being aggressive in the press,” RSL midfielder Diego Luna told reporters. “Once we committed together, they were giving us the ball.”

Four days later, the Galaxy adopted a similar approach. They squeezed the field; shadowed Busquets and Messi; and dared Miami to play over the top, in behind their not-too-deep back line. For 91 minutes, they shoved aside nerves and seemed to author a blueprint. “I thought our guys handled [Messi’s movement] really, really well,” Vanney said. Yoshida thought it was the Galaxy’s best defensive effort since he joined the club last summer.

And then, of course, they received a cruel reminder that any Miami gameplan has a potentially fatal flaw: Messi’s genius.

Be the protagonist

That, of course, has not stopped coaches from brainstorming. Some — such as Nashville, the only team to shut out Messi and Miami in a meaningful game — have bunkered. Others, such as FC Dallas and Atlanta, have hardly strayed from their aggressive, proactive systems.

“What you try to do is collectively minimize the danger [Messi] can create. I always think having more of the ball than the opponent helps with that,” Pineda, Atlanta's coach says. “Because if Messi doesn't have the ball, he cannot hurt you. You're trying to have 70% possession of the ball against him, and then you can deal with the 30%. He maybe scores a goal, but if 70% of the time you have the ball, hopefully you score a few more.”

Pineda spoke about “controlling the game,” about pinning Miami back, so that “they don't have Messi with six guys running in front of him, or with a lot of space to counter and dribble you.” He spoke about constantly monitoring Messi, with “one or two players always aware,” even while their team is in possession and attacking.

It sounded great in theory. Of course, it can spectacularly backfire. But the idea, Pineda said in a preseason Zoom interview, is “to be the protagonist,” and “to be who we are.”

In Vancouver, Whitecaps manager Vanni Sartini laid out a similar philosophy. “One of my non-negotiables is, we never man-mark,” Sartini explained. Some opponents have assigned Messi to a single defensive midfielder. But most haven’t, because man-marking Messi requires compromising defensive structure to follow him as he floats all over the field.

And in many cases, doing so would disrupt a team’s entire game model.

“We never defend related to the man, it's always pure zonal, it's always the ball,” Sartini said. “So, the idea of stopping Messi is actually an idea that — it's nonsense. You cannot stop Messi. But what can you do? You make it, for him, almost impossible to play, because you're so well organized that … when the ball arrives to him, it arrives to him always in bad positions, so we can limit him. That will be our idea.”

Even the best ideas, though, are susceptible to human error and brilliance. Messi is a class, if not a world, above every mortal who tries to stop him.

"Everybody sees his quality on the ball,” Vanney said Sunday. “For me, it’s the brain. It’s what he sees on the field, where he recognizes different spaces. He knows where everybody is all the time, and he’s already organized with the next series of plays he’s looking at — not just the next pass, but the next series of passes. He’s already calculated all of that out, and he’s already manipulating things on the field.

“Which is hard to coach against, but it’s a pleasure to watch.”

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