Game-Changer? You betcha. When a team's on the ropes, it's the legends who step up. Lionel Messi did exactly that. The U.S. Open Cup semis were in extra time action. FC Cincinnati was up 2-1. The final whistle was a mere couple of minutes away. Right then and there, Messi whipped in a perfect cross from the left flank. The ball hung in the air and landed right on the noggin of Inter Miami's forward, Leonardo Campana, like a silver platter!
Campana just needed to steer that header right and, bingo, Miami leveled the score. Even though Campana's name goes in the goal column, it's Messi who's etched in everyone's memory for that play. With the score tied at 2-2, the match pushed into extra time.
In the 93rd minute, Joseph Martinez sent Miami ahead 3-2, hammering in a shot from inside the box after a slick pass from Benjamin Cremashi. But in this nail-biting duel, the final act wasn't written yet. At 114 minutes in the second half of extra time, Miami's defenders couldn't cleat the ball from the box. Cincinnati's Japanese attacking midfielder, Yuya Kubo, curled a shot with his right foot into the net, making it 3-3.
Cincinnati got a 1-0 lead at halftime courtesy of Luciano Acosta's goal in the 18th minute. Brandon Vasquez made it 2-0 in the 53rd. But Miami turned the tide with two assists by Messi, setting the stage for this electrifying showdown to be settled in a penalty shootout. There, Inter Miami edged into the final of the oldest ongoing soccer tournament in the United States, prevailing over Cincinnati 5-4.
In the previous match too, Messi's crew triumphed in a shootout, conquering Nashville to seize the League Cup title. And today's clash proved a tougher nut to crack against Cincinnati than Nashville. Cincinnati tops the Major League Soccer points table with 51 points, while Miami lingers at the bottom with 18. Yet, fear not! Messi's squad poses a threat to any adversary.
Messi was also the architect behind Campana's first of two goals. Miami was trailing 2-0 back then. In the 68th minute, Miami was granted a free kick from the far left of the field. Messi's delivery soared into the box. The ball was prime, and Campana soared above, heading it in! The Ecuadorian striker nodded it home with a slight leap. In addition to his 10 goals in 8 matches for Miami, Messi tallied 3 assists. The Argentine ace didn't take long to open his account after coming to the United States.
Kubo struck first for Cincinnati in the shootout. Messi took the first shot for Miami. The Argentine maestro slotted the ball into the net, grazing the left post. Then it was Santiago Arias for Cincinnati and Facundo Farias for Miami, both scoring. Locked at 2-2 on the shootout scorecard, it progressed to 4-4, and then Miami's goalkeeper, Drake Callender, blocked a shot from Cincinnati's Nick Hagglund.
Enter Benjamin Cremaschi, who stepped up to clinch a 5-4 shootout triumph for Miami. The 18-year-old Cremaschi’s folks hail from Argentina.
The showdown for the U.S. Open Cup final is locked for Sept. 27. In the opposing semifinal set for Wednesday, Inter Miami is primed to face off against the winner of the Houston Dynamo-Real Salt Lake clash in the final.