The X-Factor for Inter Miami Against Orlando City Isn’t Lionel Messi

It might be easy to suggest Lionel Messi alone could propel Inter Miami past Orlando City in the Leagues Cup. But, I have another option for who can lead the Heron’s to the next round.
Inter Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender is the x-factor to help the Herons past Orlando City.
Inter Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender is the x-factor to help the Herons past Orlando City. / Stacy Revere/GettyImages

I’m fairly certain that this rivalry doesn’t have the same amount of smack talk that a traditional college rivalry does, but it may come close.

On the heels of a 3-2 win over Santos Laguna, Orlando City has earned a spot in the 2023 Leagues Cup knockout stage where they will take on Inter Miami on Wednesday, Aug. 2.

Giving Lionel Messi the nod as what will put Inter Miami over the top against Orlando City is easy, but I don’t think that’s the right answer.

Let’s dive right in… shall we?

Inter Miami vs. Orlando City: A Little History

Since Inter Miami made its debut in Major League Soccer in 2020, its primary rival has been Orlando City… especially since it’s the only other MLS side in Florida.

The Herons are 3-2-5 against Orlando City with the latest being a 3-1 loss to the Lions at DRV PNK Stadium on May 20.

What is interesting about this rivalry is that Orlando has 15 goals to Inter Miami’s 14, but Orlando has won five while Inter has just three wins.

Orlando’s Nani and Inter Miami’s Gonzalo Higuain are tied with three goals apiece against the other side, but Nani leads in rivalry assists with three.

This will be only the second time these sides have played each other outside of the MLS regular season.

The first was a 2-1 win for Orlando in the group stage of the MLS is Back Tournament in 2020 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando.

Of note: Elsewhere in group play, Houston Dynamo advanced as the second-place team in Orlando’s group and will take on Pachuca in the knockout stage while Cruz Azul advanced out of Inter Miami’s group after beating Atlanta United in a penalty shootout. They will take on Charlotte FC in the knockout stage.

Things Are Different Now for Inter Miami

Perhaps the understatement of the day is that Inter Miami isn’t the same team Orlando City faced back in May.

Signing Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba changes the complexity of the Herons and gives Orlando City something different to plot against.

Of course, the addition of new Inter Miami manager Tata Martino also changes the face of the match for both sides.

Alba may or may not play against Orlando on Aug. 2 as he is just arriving in Miami and will have only trained with the side for a few days before the match.

However, Messi and Busquets are already integrated into the side. Messi has racked up three goals in his first two matches with the Herons and Busquets has proved to be extremely dangerous in the midfield… especially in his ability to locate Messi up front.

That combination has proven to be a game changer in the short time it’s been in effect.

Despite struggling in their first match with Messi and Busquets, it was Messi who provided the game-winner against Cruz Azul.

In the following match against Atlanta, Inter Miami was dominant, shutting down any attack from the Five Stripes while showing potency on the offensive side of the ball in a 4-0 thrashing.

Things Are A Little Different for Orlando City

The Lions are led by Duncan McGuire’s eight goals this season and the side sits in seventh in the MLS Eastern Conference.

It is a stark contrast from their 13th-place finish last season.

But, the smack talk has escalated this season with the addition of Messi and Busquets to the mix.

Rumor was Orlando City fans spray-painted over a Vice City mural in Miami to show disdain for the signing… however, that link has not been substantiated.

But, Orlando City manager Oscar Pareja said the side was ready following their win over Santos Laguna.

"But surely after the victory we have to face a team who has been playing well and obviously just to make sure — the Messi thing, right, it is the wave that is bringing a lot of attention and we’re very proud. But we know what we are. We know who we are. And we’re going to go get the victory because our heart is prepared to do it."

Oscar Pareja, Orlando City

For both sides, the Leagues Cup presents a golden opportunity for hardware — and perhaps Inter Miami’s best shot — this season.

The Overlooked X-Factor For Inter Miami

Say what you will about the addition of Messi, Busquets and Alba. You can say what you will about the level of play we’ve seen from Inter Miami over their last two matches.

But, to me, an overlooked x-factor for the Herons is simple: Drake Callender.

The American goalkeeper has been a stalwart in goal over the last two matches — shutting down both Cruz Azul (even with Messi only playing half the match) and Atlanta United (again, with Messi only playing about half the match).

He’s been consistent in his form and is one player Inter Miami should lean on to help them advance in the tournament.

His play has been outstanding — from stopping shots, to directing traffic on the backline for the Herons.

Regardless, Wednesday’s matchup in Ft. Lauderdale could be an exciting renewal of this Florida rivalry.