Just four days after winning their first trophy in club history, the magic seemed to be running out for Inter Miami on Wednesday night in Cincinnati. Unbeaten in seven games since Lionel Messi made his debut, it felt like Miami’s incredible run of form was set to draw to a close when they went down 2-0 midway through the second half of their U.S. Open Cup semifinal.
Miami had its share of shaky moments in the previous seven games. Against FC Dallas in the Leagues Cup round of 16, they went down two goals and needed an own goal and penalties to survive. They were outplayed for long stretches by Nashville in the final, but leaned on some exceptional goalkeeping and a singular moment of Messi magic to emerge victorious.
What they’ve never faced was dread, and any serious self-doubt. Down a goal at halftime of Wednesday’s match thanks to an 18th-minute goal from Cincy’s own Argentine No. 10, Lucho Acosta, they appeared to be facing both. This was not Dallas, where the crowd was largely composed of curiosity-seekers and Messi disciples. The crowd in Cincinnati was almost entirely made up of fans who had come to boo the superstar, not fawn over him, and Cincy itself played with discipline and determination against a very tired Miami side playing its fourth match in less than two weeks.
So when Brandon Vazquez doubled Cincinnati’s lead in the 53rd minute, a sense of finality crept in. Even Miami, unbeaten in seven and led by the game’s greatest-ever player, wouldn’t win every game they play. Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba are exceptional talents, but they are also in the twilight of their careers. Playing hundreds upon hundreds of minutes over their first month in a new country will slow even the youngest, fittest players down.
Messi, who had scored in each of those first seven matches, had been less involved all day. Cincinnati had done well to put numbers on him when possible as he sat a bit deeper than he typically has with Miami. Busquets, who has so often made things look effortless, appeared frustrated for stretches of the match, gesticulating at teammates when they failed him.
None of this ended up mattering, of course. Messi, again, took the match over in entirety, just not in the way we’ve grown used to.
There was no swerving free kick, no feint or touch to turn a defender into a statue, and yet he was still the most important player on the field. How could we expect things to end any differently?
Just minutes after Vazquez scored, Miami got their first. From just outside the penalty area, Messi swung in a dead ball that found striker Leo Campana, who did not let Messi down following his big miss in the Leagues Cup final. A well-placed, glancing header redirected the Argentine’s service into the near side netting, drawing Miami within a goal. It was a much-needed goal for Campana, who currently finds himself vying with former Atlanta United striker Josef Martinez for a starting spot.
— Inter Miami CF (@InterMiamiCF) August 24, 2023
Miami’s equalizer was another moment of magic dimmed by his own brilliance, if you will. Fans have grown accustomed to the spectacular nature of Messi’s play, so much so that he makes difficult plays look ordinary. Such was the case when Messi once again found Campana with a bending cross, this time at the far post in the seventh minute of eight added to the end of regulation time. Messi’s service was so perfectly-placed, so inch-perfect, that he essentially made Campana’s head into a backboard. By the time the ball arrived on his forehead, it likely would’ve been harder for the Ecuadorian forward to miss the mark than to hit it.
Otro más de Leo para Leo en el minuto 97! 🤯🔥 pic.twitter.com/5n5JMsjS1T
— Inter Miami CF (@InterMiamiCF) August 24, 2023
“That assist on the second goal,” Inter Miami head coach Tata Martino said after the match. “I think I said it in one of the first press conferences I gave. He has normalized plays that are just usually very difficult — we now see them as normal. That assist, it’s exceptional.”
“As a whole the guys did a pretty good job of limiting moments where he could be in dangerous spots and cause us some problems,” said FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan. “At times having him drift a little further from goal and be a playmaker, I thought he handled those moments pretty well along the backline. We got a lot of moments right to be able to win the ball.”
Messi turned playmaker on Wednesday, and he also turned motivator. After Miami took a 3-2 lead from a Josef Martinez goal in the first half of extra time, Messi used the break to gather his teammates for an impassioned team talk.
“He told us to have faith,” Campana said after the match. “He told us that we were going to win. That after all the work we’d done on the field, that we would never fail. It’s the kind of leader he is — he wants to speak in every game, every training, every championship match.”
Moments like these have become increasingly common from Messi in the latter stages of his career. He spoke before every one of Argentina’s matches at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar (“He says what he feels, but he tries to get the pressure away from us,” World Cup teammate Alexis Mac Allister told the BBC of those speeches) and “he lost his mind” before Argentina’s 2021 Copa America final in a clip that went viral.
Miami conceded a goal to Cincinnati’s Yuya Kubo in the second half of extra time to send the match to a shootout — Miami’s third in the last few weeks.
Messi scored in the opening round of penalties, coolly and calmly setting the tone for Miami. He had been booed heavily while approaching the penalty spot and after his kick, he glared at the crowd, who by then had quieted down.
Following Messi’s example, Miami’s other penalties were all perfect, despite the majority of the takers being incredibly young. Twenty-year-old Facundo Farias went after Messi, then 19-year-old David Ruiz, then Martinez, and 18-year-old Benjamin Cremaschi finished it off.
Messi has turned a team that was winless in 11 straight prior to his arrival into a never-say-die bunch, a team unbeaten in eight straight matches, already with one trophy and now with a chance at another. And after scoring 10 goals in his first seven matches, he engineered this win while taking only one shot — a late free kick — in 120 minutes of play.
Cincinnati had outshot and largely outplayed Miami, but they were the ones eliminated — the latest team to have deluded themselves into believing that they could derail Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami.
I think we were lacking sharpness to navigate that first half. We were a step off. I saw a team with one gear less than our rival. The good thing about all of this is that we didn’t drop our shoulders, we pressed on. It’s not easy in a semifinal to turn things around the way we did. We adapted a lot .
I think we were controlling the game well in the second half. And the penalties, after that… If I’d had this kind of luck in penalties for the rest of my career, things would have been a lot less stressful.
“He told us to have faith,” That we were going to win. That after all the work we’d done on the field, that we would never fail. It’s the kind of leader he is — he wants to speak in every game, every training, every championship match.
(Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)