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Soccer newsletter: Remembering Diego Maradona

Diego Maradona holds up his team's trophy after Argentina's 3-2 victory over West Germany at the World Cup final in 1986.
Diego Maradona holds up his team’s trophy after Argentina’s 3-2 victory over West Germany at the World Cup final in 1986.
(Associated Press)

Hello, and welcome to another edition of the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer and we start today with the loss of a legend who is already becoming bigger in death than he was in life.

And that’s amazing because few people were bigger in life than Diego Maradona, who inspired his own religion, la Iglesia Maradoniana (Church of Maradona), in his native Argentina. Even non-believers consider him a deity there, taking the No. 10 he made famous and sandwiching it between a ‘D’ and an ‘S’ to spell D10S.

Maradona played his last game for La Albiceleste in 1994, meaning nearly half the people alive today in Argentina never saw him play live. Nor did I, although I did see him coach the national team during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and I spent some time with him in Sinaloa in 2018 when he was coaching Dorados in Mexico’s second-tier Liga de Ascenso.

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It was impossible to confuse that Maradona with the one from the highlight reels. Decades of drug and alcohol abuse, in addition to other ailments, had left him shuffling with the help of a cane, his speech a barely-comprehensible mumble. But that didn’t matter to the players – the Dorados or their opponents.

“If it’s Maradona talking the message is much stronger, much more profound,” said Daniel Brailovsky a former Argentine national team player turned TV analyst. “Those young players never saw him play but they’ve seen the videos. And when Maradona talks, it has the power of authority.”

That’s why opponents, even in defeat, lined up to take pictures with him. It’s why fans showed up at the stadium hours before game time to watch him limp off the bus.

“He’s a historic figure. Working with Maradona has been the best thing that’s happened to me in my soccer career,” forward Juan Galindrez, a Colombian playing for Sinaloa, told me. “He was touched by God to play soccer the way he played. For him it was always easy.”

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That’s the part that will live on. There’s an argument to be had over whether Maradona was the greatest who ever played. He’s certainly part of a small group that includes Pele, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and maybe one or two others.

He didn’t score the most goals – in fact he’s fourth in Argentine national team history with 34 in 91 games. And he scored more than 28 goals in a club season just once. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Robert Lewandowski have done it eight times, Ronaldo 11 times and Messi 12.

Maradona played in two World Cup finals, winning one. Pele played in three, winning each time. But the numbers can’t show everything and what they miss here is how Maradona transformed the game.

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Soccer was a plodding, defensive game when Maradona first started playing as a boy. The Dutch, with Johan Cruyff, began opening things up in the 1970s, perfecting the concept of Total Football. Yet for all of Cruyff’s individual excellence – and that of Pele as well – soccer remained a team game.

Maradona changed that. He was a leading man with no need for a supporting cast; a front man with no need for a chorus. Maradona brought soccer what it desperately needed: panache, style, personality, artistry, flair.

In short he redefined the game, clearing the way for players such as Messi, Ronaldo, Ibrahimovic and others to turn games and even full tournaments into displays of their own personal brilliance.

That is why Maradona and always will be a legend. Just as Babe Ruth changed baseball, the forward pass changed football and the curved stick changed hockey, Maradona changed the world’s game.

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He was an exquisite dribbler and a deadly finisher and the two goals that defined his career – scored four minutes apart in 1986 World Cup semifinal win over England – demonstrated both.

Maradona clearly used his hand to punch in the first, but because there was no instant replay the score stood. Later, Maradona cheekily insisted the ball was redirected “a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God.”

The second goal was pure genius, and perhaps the greatest in World Cup history. After receiving the ball in his own end, he dribbled more than half the length of the field at a full sprint, eluding five defenders and then so thoroughly confusing goalkeeper Peter Shilton that he fell to the turf, leaving Maradona to score the game-winning goal into an empty net.

“When Diego scored that second goal against us, I felt like applauding,” England forward Gary Lineker said. “It was impossible to score such a beautiful goal. He’s the greatest player of all time, by a long way. A genuine phenomenon.”

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Three days later Argentina would win its second World Cup in eight years. Maradona was just 25.

“In Argentine football there is a before and after Maradona,” said Julio Grondona, former head of the Argentine football association.

What would come later – the drugs, the alcohol, the obesity, the tax evasion – cannot and should not overshadow what came before. Maradona brought a child’s wonder, enthusiasm, and joy to his play on the pitch. But he was stalked by demons off the field. And perhaps that should sadden all of us some, and not just because of what all that self-destructive behavior took from Maradona, who died less than six weeks shy of his 61st birthday.

Just think of the magic we missed. Because for all that he did accomplish, it was what he failed to do that haunted Maradona most.

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“Do you know the player I could have been,” he once lamented “if I hadn’t taken drugs?’

There’s no limit to how good the U.S. women can be

The bar keeps rising for the women’s national team.

Already a four-time world champion, undefeated in 32 straight games, perfect in 10 games this season and in 11 under new coach Vlatko Andonovski, the women nonetheless continue finding ways to get better.

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Last week they continued their education with 2-0 win over the Netherlands. The Dutch are the reigning European champions, the No. 4 team in the world and one that hadn’t lost since the 2019 Women’s World Cup final in France.

The U.S. won that one by a 2-0 score as well.

The rematch shouldn’t have been close. The Americans hadn’t played in more than 260 days, the longest break from a national team in more than three decades; the Dutch had played twice in the last four weeks, winning two Euro qualifiers by a combined 13-0.

Sure the Netherlands were missing Vivianne Miedema, the country’s all-time leading scorer. But the U.S. was missing Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe, who have won three of the last five world player of the year awards.

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Yet the U.S. was never in danger. In fact, the Dutch never even got a shot on goal, allowing Alyssa Naeher, one of nine players to start the World Cup final and Friday’s rematch, to record her 37th career shutout without making a save.

Here’s how deep the U.S. is: The two goals Friday came from Rose Lavelle, who scored against the Netherlands in the World Cup final 16 months ago, and Kristie Mewis who hadn’t scored against anybody in an international match since 2013.

The 2,722 days between goals is the longest gap in national team history.

What some more numbers?

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The U.S. won its nine games this year by a combined 33-1 – despite playing five of those games against teams ranked in the top 13 in the FIFA world rankings. Only Japan, with a second-half goal from Mana Iwabuchi in the final game of the SheBelieves Cup, managed to score on the Americans in 2020. And in the 32-game unbeaten streak, which dates to January 2019, the U.S. has outscored opponents 109-14. Twenty-three of those games ended in shutouts.

So with the next World Cup more than 2½ years away and with the postponed Tokyo Olympics still uncertain because of the coronavirus pandemic, maybe this is a good time to ease up a little bit right?

Not a chance. If anything, the team’s final game of the year convinced the players they need to work harder.

“Every time I get put on this team it’s about working extremely hard, and just trying to be the best you can possibly be in your role,” defender Crystal Dunn said. “It’s about building from here. We had one goal together and that was to every day work harder and get better.

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“There’s no secret to how we prepare. It’s just about working extremely hard and respecting each other and wanting to do your very best for the player next to you.”

Andonovski is off to the best start of any U.S. manager – no other has won his or her first 11 games – but even he sees room for improvement.

“We still have to have to do a little bit better,” he said.

“I wouldn’t say [we were] dominant by any means.”

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Either he was watching a different game or he has much higher standards than the rest of us. But no matter what you thought of the last week’s performance, there’s no doubt Andonovski’s team has a chance to be much, much better. Consider that Friday’s game marked the first time he has coached Alex Morgan, whose 107 career goals is second to Lloyd among active players.

Morgan missed half the games in the 32-game unbeaten streak to injury and maternity leave but played the second half against the Netherlands, scoring a goal that was wiped out by an offside call. With Morgan, Rapinoe and Lloyd all expected back next year, the U.S. could be all but unbeatable.

“We’re missing some important parts of this team,” Dunn said after Friday’s win. “[We] accept that we’re not a perfect yet. This is a great building block for us. Now everyone can kind of go off to their separate spaces, enjoy some of the holidays and hit the ground running in January.”

If they do that, it’s unlikely anyone will be able to keep up.

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(Just like) starting over

LAFC’s season didn’t end the way the team had hoped. But it did end in a way with which the team is familiar: in a 3-1 playoff loss to the Seattle Sounders.

That’s exactly how last season ended. The one before that ended with a 3-2 playoff loss to Real Salt Lake. But this year Bob Bradley’s team gets something of a mulligan on that last game thing because LAFC still has as many as three CONCACAF Champions League games to play.

That tournament was suspended by the first COVID-19 outbreak in March, with Olimpia of Honduras leading the Montreal Impact, Mexico’s Tigres leading New York City and Club America ahead Atlanta United after the first games of their two-leg quarterfinals. The return legs will be played Dec. 16 under quarantine conditions in an empty stadium in Orlando.

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LAFC’s first leg with Cruz Azul was scheduled for a sold-out Banc of California Stadium on March 12 but that match was canceled by COVID-19 just hours before kickoff. As a result that quarterfinal playoff, which will also be played Dec. 16, will be a single-elimination match.

If LAFC wins, it will play a semifinal game Dec. 19 for a chance to advance to the tournament final three days later, a three-game seven-day sprint to a possible regional championship trophy. Under normal circumstances the last three rounds of the CCL are played over nine weeks.

The change is both good and bad for LAFC. It’s bad because the original delay in March came at a time when LAFC was flying high, having lost just once in eight games, including the preseason, with Carlos Vela scoring goals in five of them.

But it’s good because finishing the tournament now gives LAFC a chance at a reset after an MLS season that saw it win just two of its final seven with Vela starting only two games in the final three months. LAFC was also missing five starters in the playoff loss in Seattle – one with injury and four to COVID-19 infections picked up while on international duty in South America. Among the missing was Diego Rossi, the league’s leading scorer with 14 goals, and Brian Rodríguez, the team leader in assists with seven.

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No team wants to end a season with half its first team on the sideline. What’s more LAFC is catching Cruz Azul in a slump that has seen it win just twice in its last eight tries.

“We’re very fortunate that after a season like this, we can still continue it in Champion’s League,” midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye said. “No excuses.

“We have an opportunity to win a trophy so we need to put all our focus toward that. And we’re excited because it’s a real opportunity….we have something to look forward to.”

Speaking of looking forward, LAFC declined to release its roster moves Monday, the MLS deadline for picking up or declining contract options. But the Galaxy did.

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That team signed veteran midfielder Sacha Kljestan to a new deal and began negotiations with midfielder Joe Corona, defender Emiliano Insúa and goalkeeper Jonathan Klinsmann, whose options were declined.

The Galaxy picked up the options on four players, including forward Ethan Zubak, who scored two goals in 15 games and is negotiating with goalkeeper David Bingham, defender Rolf Feltscher and midfielder Perry Kitchen, who are all out of contract. The team has parted ways with midfielder Emil Cuello and forwards Yony González and Gordon Wild.

Calling an audible

When the NFL moved the Dallas Cowboys-Baltimore Ravens game from Thursday to Dec. 7, Fox was left with several hours of primetime network airtime to fill. So it turned to MLS, which agreed to move the Western Conference semifinal between Sporting Kansas City and Minnesota United from Wednesday to Thursday, going from a cable audience to a network television one, many of whom will probably tune in expecting to see the other kind of football.

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And because that change will leave the winner insufficient time to prepare for the conference final, MLS moved that too, from Dec. 6 to Dec. 7. (That latter change may have happened anyway; if the Seattle Sounders wind up playing host to that game its stadium would is unavailable on Dec. 6 because of an NFL game.)

MLS playoffs

Results and schedule

Eastern Conference

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Play-In Round

New England 2, Montreal 1

Nashville 3, Inter Miami 0

Quarterfinals

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Orlando City 1, New York City 1 (Orlando advances on penalties, 6-5)

New England 2, Philadelphia 0

Columbus 3, Red Bulls 2

Nashville 1, Toronto 0

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Semifinals

New England 3, Orlando City 1

Columbus 2, Nashville 0

Conference final

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Sunday

New England at Columbus, ABC, ESPN Deportes, noon PT

Western Conference

Quarterfinals

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Kansas City 3, San Jose 3 (Kansas City advances on penalties, 3-0)

Minnesota 3, Colorado 0

Dallas 1, Portland 1 (Dallas advances on penalties, 8-7)

Seattle Sounders 3, LAFC 1

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Semifinals

Tonight

Dallas at Seattle, FS1, Fox Deportes, 6:30 p.m. PT

Thursday

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Minnesota at Kansas City, Ch. 11, Fox Deportes, 5:30 p.m. PT

Conference final

Monday

Semifinal winners, FS1, Fox Deportes, kickoff TBA

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MLS Cup

Saturday, Dec. 12

Conference champions, Ch. 11, UniMas, TUDN, 5:30 p.m. PT

A tip to Serie A managers: rent don’t buy

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Milan’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who leads Serie A in scoring at 39, hasn’t said how long he intends to keep playing. But if he comes back for another season there’s a good chance he’ll be around longer than his manager, Stefano Pioli.

According to a study done by Vyom Chaudhary, head of soccer content for the Danish website Runrepeat.com, the average Serie A manager kept his job for just 35 games, less than a full season. During the last decade, there have been 44 times that managers in the league have failed to make it through 10 games. (Check out the study here.)

The life expectancy isn’t must longer in Spain, where La Liga coaches last an average of 39.6 games. Surprisingly, the hyper-competitive EPL is the most stable of Europe’s major leagues with managers lasting an average of 69.4 games, 11 more than Ligue 1 managers and 14 more than Bundesliga coaches.

EPL clubs are also the least likely to make a mid-season change if they are not facing relegation. But Chaudhary admits the study, which looked at 815 different managerial spells in Europe’s top five leagues over the last decade, was skewed in the EPL’s favor because Alex Ferguson managed 1,033 games at Manchester City and Arsène Wenger 828 games at Arsenal during the time he studied.

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“One might assume that the Premier League is the most cut-throat and competitive top European soccer league. However, the study shows that managers in the Premier League are more secure in their jobs than their counterparts in other top leagues,” Chaudhary said. “Unlike the Premier League, it’s common for clubs facing relegation in Serie A and La Liga to change their managers two to three times during a single season.”

Not surprisingly relegation was a factor in more than 60% of the coaching changes in the five leagues, although the moves didn’t always work out. In Serie A relegation-threatened clubs often make multiple managerial changes in a single season, the majority of which end in failure.

The January transfer window, meanwhile, plays a major role in managerial recruitment with clubs forced to make mid-season coaching changes most likely to do so during the months of December and January.

Among Chaudhary’s other findings:

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—The Premier League has the lowest representation of domestic managerial talent with English managers managing only 27% of league games from 2010-20.

—Serie A is at the opposite end of the spectrum with Italian managers managing 87% of league games.

—The top tier of Italian football also recruited managers from the fewest number of nations, 12. Premier League recruited from the highest number of nations, 22.

—Only managers from France, Italy and Spain have managed in all the five major European leagues during the last decade, while managers from Argentina, Germany, Netherlands, Portugal and Uruguay have managed in four out of five leagues.

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Podcast

Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.

Quotebook

“Even if I played for a million years, I’d never come close to Maradona. Not that I’d want to anyway. He’s the greatest there’s ever been.”

Argentine great Lionel Messi on the late Diego Maradona

Until next time...

Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter: @kbaxter11.

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