Despite its rich history, for more than a century the U.S. Open Cup tournament has operated in relative obscurity outside die-hard American soccer circles.
That changed when Lionel Messi joined Inter Miami, as evidenced by the international media throng that showed up Tuesday morning for team training in advance of the cup final against the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday night (8:30 p.m., Paramount +, CBS Sports Network, Telemundo) at DRV PNK Stadium.
Everyone has the same burning question: Will Messi play?
The Argentine star has been bothered by an old leg injury in recent weeks, sat out road games against Atlanta and Orlando, and came off after 37 minutes at home against Toronto last week. He and left back Jordi Alba, who also missed the Orlando game Sunday with an unspecified injury, are questionable for Wednesday.
Neither Messi nor Alba was on the practice field Tuesday morning during the 15 minutes allotted for the media to watch.
Asked whether he expects the duo to play Wednesday and whether they, in fact, trained on Tuesday, coach Tata Martino replied: “They came out when you all left (laughter). We will wait until tomorrow. Jordi will be difficult, but Leo we will wait until the last moment on Wednesday to make the decision.”
Martino said he will sit down with Messi Wednesday morning and see how he feels. The coach added that three factors will enter the decision: the player’s feelings, the fact that Wednesday’s game is a cup final, and the playoff push that awaits with five regular season games remaining.
“This is a final; if this were a regular league game with 34 dates we wouldn’t take any risk, but we are 90 minutes or 120 minutes from a title,” Martino said. “We will run some risks if we have to and then we have to look at what lies ahead because the next two games can close the gap in our playoff race.”
Fans are hoping to see Messi in Wednesday’s finale of the U.S. Open Cup -- a 109-year-old knockout tournament that includes amateur teams all the way up to MLS teams -- but Martino and midfielder Sergio Busquets said that should not play into his decision whether to play.
“We understand the fans, it is for them that we play, but we are not machines or robots,” Busquets said. “We’d like to play every game, every minute, have no injuries, never be tired, but we can’t control that…Leo wants to play and help us win a title, but with his experience, he knows his body and knows at what point he can and can’t play. With an injury like this each day he takes a step toward being ready, but we saw what happened the other day after having rested. He knows best how he feels.”
Asked if he thinks Messi was rushed to return to the lineup against Toronto after sitting out the game against Atlanta and Argentina’s game earlier that week at Bolivia, Martino said: “I won’t say `no.’ Sometimes it’s difficult, between the medical staff, the player, the coaching staff, we talk, we saw he felt good, the previous 48 hours before the match he did absolutely everything he needed to do and in the end what happened happened. It’s much easier to know these answers in hindsight.”
Inter Miami is a different, less intimidating team without Messi, although recent wins over Kansas City and Toronto without him prove the team can win in his absence.
“Clearly, it’s a handicap not having the best player in the world and the difference maker on our team,” said midfielder Sergio Busquets. “But we will wait until tomorrow and hopefully there is a chance he can be there to help us, and if not, surely other players who will step up and help us be the better team.”
Houston coach Ben Olsen is preparing his team as if Messi will play. Inter Miami has lost just one game since Messi’s arrival, and he has scored 11 goals and had eight assists during that stretch.
“You can do everything right against him by the book…There’s been thousands of coaches that have tried to stop him and thousands of coaches have failed constantly; so, I don’t have the magic bullet to stop Messi,” Olsen said. “No one has proven they have that. Of course, we’re all trying to do the same thing: limit his space and condense the areas, there’s all these little tricks you can try to do to limit him.”
The match Wednesday features the high-profile, star-studded Inter Miami against the gritty, less-hyped Houston Dynamo, whose roster includes Mexican midfield star Hector Herrera and rising Panamanian talent Adalberto ‘Coco’ Carrasquilla.
“We know each other from facing each other in Spain, when he was with Atletico Madrid, he’s a great player with a lot of experience and has been on his national team,” Busquets said of Herrera. “It was a pleasure playing with him in La Liga, but once the whistle blows, we will try to stop him.”
Martino called Herrera “a crack”, the ultimate compliment in soccer parlance.
Carrasquilla scored a spectacular goal in the Open Cup Semifinal against Real Salt Lake and was named MVP of the 2023 CONCACAF Gold Cup after leading Panama to the final.
“He’s one of the key players on their team, and the question is where he will start in the lineup because he has played outside, he’s played the No. 9, he can play in the interior, and where he is will determine how we play against him,” Martino said.
The Dynamo, which won the 2018 Open Cup but struggled in league play for many years, has had a resurgence since the arrival of Olsen in November 2022. The team is in fourth place in the Western Conference.
Although Messi is Miami’s headliner, Olsen stressed that his supporting cast deserves much credit for the team’s summer turnaround.
“They’ve done an incredible job of putting a very talented roster together in a very brief amount of time,” Olsen said. “It’s been remarkable. I don’t think we’ve ever seen any type of whole team transformation like this in the league’s history.”