ORLANDO, Fla. – For most observers, Diego Simeone is a larger-than-life figure, a world-class midfield pitbull turned highly successful, and famously intense, manager who stalks the Atletico Madrid technical area with barely-contained fury in his all-black outfits.
For Maxi Moralez, "El Cholo" is something simpler: A former teammate, and one of the first coaches of his professional career.
“I know Cholo Simeone well,” Moralez told reporters as the 2019 MLS All-Star Team convened at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on Monday. “I had him as a coach and a teammate when I was at Racing. I'm happy to see him again.”
New York City FC’s chief playmaker was still a teenager when he made his first-team debut at Racing Club de Avellaneda in 2005, the same year Simeone returned home to Argentina to finish his playing career after a sterling 15-year run in Europe. A few months later Simeone hung up his cleats and moved straight into the club’s head coaching role, giving Moralez a glimpse of the personality who would eventually grow into one of world soccer’s top leaders.
On Wednesday night they’ll cross paths again, with Moralez, 32, now the well-traveled veteran who’s earned his place and then some among the stars and standouts of MLS of the 2019 MLS All-Star Game presented by Target (8 pm ET | FS1, UniMás in US, TSN1/4/5, TVAS in Canada). The diminutive attacking dynamo currently leads the league in assists (13) and has chipped in six goals to boot, building on an 8g/16a campaign in 2018 that earned him NYCFC’s player of the year award.
He’s keen to experience the “spectacle” of the MLS All-Star Game for the first time, although he knows – pointing to Atleti’s stunning 7-3 trouncing of crosstown enemies Real Madrid in International Champions Cup action in New Jersey on Friday – that Simeone & Co. show no quarter as a general rule.
“I’m looking to enjoy it,” said Moralez, “and take it with the seriousness that it deserves.”
A winding path has taken Moralez from Argentina to Russia and back, then Italy, Mexico and now Gotham over the past 12 years. Like Simeone, he plans to finish his playing days in his native land, and recent reports out of South America have linked Moralez to a Racing homecoming, with his current contract reportedly expiring at season’s end.
“The main idea is to finish my career in Argentina,” Moralez confirmed on Monday. “I’m 32 and I think little by little this moment is getting close. For now, I'm enjoying my time in MLS and then after we'll see what happens.”
He still carries unfinished business here, with NYCFC currently in the thick of the Eastern Conference race and hopeful of mounting the MLS Cup run that has eluded them in painful fashion over the past three years. He believes that even with the departure of talismanic figure David Villa, the Cityzens are well-equipped to make more noise in the postseason.
“I think we have options. That's what's important, more than one system over another,” said Moralez of head coach Dome Torrent’s approach. “We have a great squad that can change shape a few times during the game and the coach has discovered this. That's why I think we've been able to have more consistency.
“Then the idea is for us to stay up there and try to qualify for the playoffs with the highest seed possible. And then the playoffs are another thing. We need to try to get there in good shape and well prepared.”