Freedom to Dream: First up, Open Cup, then an unlikely playoffs chase

The first- and last-place teams in Major League Soccer's Eastern Conference will play in a Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinal Wednesday, but cellar-dweller Inter Miami (seven straight wins and a Leagues Cup championship) is ready to make a late-season charge. Meanwhile, first-place FC Cincinnati is coming off a penalty-kick loss in Leagues Cup to eventual runner-up Nashville SC and a 3-0 drubbing from intrastate rival Columbus Crew in the 'Hell is Real' derby.

Columbus Crew fans celebrate a 3-0 'Hell is Real' derby win Sunday against FC Cincinnati with fake flames.
Columbus Crew fans celebrate a 3-0 'Hell is Real' derby win Sunday against FC Cincinnati with fake flames. / Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch / USA
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Thirty-three points separate the MLS Eastern Conference’s first- and last-place teams. But, heading into their Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinal clash Wednesday, Inter Miami CF and FC Cincinnati are much more evenly matched than their Major League Soccer records indicate.

Inter Miami players Jordi Alba and Lionel Messi, best friends and former Barcelona teammates, celebrate the Herons' Leagues Cup championship Saturday.
Inter Miami players Jordi Alba and Lionel Messi, best friends and former Barcelona teammates, celebrate the Herons' Leagues Cup championship Saturday. / Alan Poizner-USA TODAY Sports

Miami Makeover

Inter Miami is not the same team it was July 15, when it lost 3-0 to St. Louis City FC, its 11th straight MLS match without a win. That loss came in Gerardo "Tata" Martino's first match as La Rosanegra's newest coach. Anybody paying attention knows what happened next: Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets (and, a few games later, Jordi Alba) arrived in South Florida, donned the Pink & Black and proceeded to win seven straight matches and the Leagues Cup championship.

Before the Leagues Cup break, I opined that -- even if Messi and friends actually did show up for Inter Miami -- the Herons should focus on winning the U.S. Open Cup. After all, that will only require two consecutive wins (against FC Cincinnati and the winner of Wednesday's second semifinal between the Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake FC). But watching La Rosanegra's thrilling march to the Leagues Cup, I've revised my expectations.

Why not a treble?

Inter Miami’s motto is “Freedom to Dream”…If we’re dreaming, what heights could the Herons climb this year? Well, a Supporter’s Shield is — nah, that’s a dream too far in all but theory. First up, Open Cup. Two matches to a second trophy.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Then, a playoff run. Inter Miami, with 18 points, is 14 out of a postseason spot. But the Herons have two games in hand over Chicago and Montreal, who are tied for eighth (the top nine make the playoffs). If they finish at the same points per game they played the first 24 matches, they’ll end up with 45 points. So, Miami should shoot for 27 points from their final 12 matches — 2.25 per match.

Considering the Herons managed just 0.82 points per match in its first 22 matches, that sounds like an insurmountable challenge. BUT, that was the OLD Inter Miami. This “Freedom to Dream” version of the Herons averaged THREE points per match through its seven Leagues Cup games.

Freedom to Dream

It’s highly unlikely that Inter Miami will go undefeated the rest of the way, but it’s not out of the question they win nine, or tally some combination of wins and draws to put them in contention.

And if they can make the tournament, they can win it. From last place to the most unlikely treble ever: Leagues Cup, Open Cup, MLS Cup.

Buckle up, fans. Freedom to Dream!

MLS Cup
MLS Cup / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports