Messi Helps Inter Miami To Reach U.S. Open Cup final

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By Sedara Philip

Inter Miami and Lionel Messi defied belief again Wednesday night by flipping a late deficit into a U.S. Open Cup semi-final victory in a penalty shootout. The victory salvaged Messi’s chances of earning the treble in his first campaign, and his two assists and converted shootout attempt were instrumental in the comeback.

A deflected 18th-minute effort from FC Cincinnati star Luciano Acosta snuck by Leagues Cup hero Drake Callender at the near post, and United States men’s national team striker Brandon Vazquez doubled the lead with a shot stung low and hard from outside the box.

But Messi, who struggled to find open space for most of the match, brought Inter Miami back into the match with a floated free-kick from the wing that found the wide-open head of a charging Leonardo Campana in the 68th minute. It was the type of moment Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan had warned his team about, and one that foreshadowed their defensive collapse.

“You could spend 89 minutes doing as good of a job as you can to stop an important player,” said Noonan before the game. “And in one moment, even with the right defensive structure, the right numbers around the ball, he still has the ability to change the game with the spectacular.”

Then, in stoppage time, Cincinnati momentarily lost focus. They sagged off Messi in midfield. Like it was training, he calmly lifted a long pass over the top of the defence, giving Campana another straightforward finish to level the score 2-2 and force extra-time.

Inter Miami, as they have so often the past month, looked better as their belief grew. Cincinnati simultaneously seemed to fade. Defender Matt Miazga gave the ball away early in extra-time, 18-year-old Inter Miami prodigy Benjamin Cremaschi played a pass onto the feet of Josef Martinez and Martinez scored to give Inter Miami the lead.

Martinez had been something of a forgotten man for Inter Miami. The ex-Atlanta United MVP was the shiny new signing earlier in 2023 but has taken a backseat amid Messi mania. His strike offered a reminder of what an important piece he can be down the final stretch of the campaign.

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