Three Up, Three Down: Inter Miami 3 (5), FC Cincinnati 3 (4)

Messi fails to score, but pinpoint passing sparks Miami rally; Campana uses his head; and Callender and Cremaschi repeat penalty shootout heroics.
 Inter Miami's Lionel Messi celebrates with teammates after the Herons edged FC Cincinnati in penalty kicks to advance to the U.S. Open Cup final.
Inter Miami's Lionel Messi celebrates with teammates after the Herons edged FC Cincinnati in penalty kicks to advance to the U.S. Open Cup final. / Katie Stratmani-USA TODAY Sports

Three Up +

Choosing a match's three most outstanding stars is almost always easy; ranking them isn't.

So, I'll spare you the suspense I so carefully build with the next 600 or so words:

Lionel Messi; 2. Benjamin Cremaschi; 3. Leonardo Campana

Truth be told, I waffled a little before deciding my Three Up from Wednesday's U.S. Open Cup semifinal victory at Cincinnati. Benjamin Cremaschi came into the match in the 91st minute and, two minutes later. delivered a perfectly weighted roller into a seam for Josef Martinez, who scored Inter Miami's third goal and temporarily gave the Herons the lead.

Then, as he did against FC Dallas in the Leagues Cup round of 32, the 18-year-old took the ball, calmly placed it on the spot, and smashed home the match-winning penalty kick. I'm starting to get pretty excited about this kid; I love the energy, joy -- and dare I say, youthful innocence? -- he brings to the pitch.

Goalkeeper Drake Callender did surrender three goals, none especially soft, none especially glorious offensive strikes -- but he did tally six saves and guessed right to block Nick Hagglund's penalty and set the stage for Benja. Callender and Cremaschi did make the two plays that most significantly and immediately sealed the deal for Inter Miami.

BUT the penalty shootout was the culmination of 120-plus minutes of ragged, gritty, beautiful, exciting football. The Herons looked spent, even Lionel Messi, the maestro, the talisman, the magician, stood bent, hands on knees, barely managing his trademark middle third stroll in extra time.

Tata Martino, needing to rest his starters with a congested match schedule coming up, made four changes to the starting lineup, but the Barcelona Alumni Association -- Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba -- played every minute of the match, again.

And Wednesday, they were visibly NOT themselves. And Martino's 5-3-2 formation seemed simply to confuse La Rosanegra and was scrapped early in the second half for the more familiar 4-3-3.

So, for 67 minutes, Cincinnati -- the best team in MLS with 51 points through 24 league matches -- looked comfortably in control, leading 2-0. Then that man Messi did what he has done so prolifically over two decades...well, no, he didn't score, but he DID create two moments of brilliance to save the Skinny Birds' bacon.

In the 68th minute, Messi sent a perfectly placed free kick in to Leo Campana, who didn't so much head the pass into Cincinnati's net as Messi used Campana's head to bank the ball into the goal. The accuracy was breathtaking.

Inter Miami forward Leonardo Campana, right, celebrates his second goal with teammate Robert Taylor.
Inter Miami forward Leonardo Campana, right, celebrates his second goal with teammate Robert Taylor. / Katie Stratmani-USA TODAY Sports

Then, with time running out and Inter Miami still trailing 2-1, the Argentinian alchemist topped his first, inimitable assist with another perfect looping cross from distance to Campana, who this time did have to stretch ever so slightly to nod the ball home. In the seventh of eight minutes of stoppage time.

National soccer treasure Ray Hudson is Geordi by birth but Floridian by choice; he played for Fort Lauderdale and Tampa Bay in the original NASL and coached the Miami Fusion of Major League Soccer's first generation. But he is best known by today's fans for his exquisite turns of phrase behind a microphone.

"The madness of Messi arrives! Astonishing pass! He doesn't pull rabbits out of his magic hat, he pulls kangaroos!"

Ray Hudson, soccer wordsmith

Announcing the match on Paramount+ and the CBS Sports Golazo Network, Hudson -- a long-time, dedicated fan of the former Barcelona and Argentina star, raved about Messi's passing: "The madness of Messi arrives! Astonishing pass! He doesn't pull rabbits out of his magic hat, he pulls kangaroos!"

And, "But again Lionel Messi drops that kind of a beer into the shot glass at the other end of the bar in a different village!"

And, "Astonishing in his accuracy. Look at this pass, people! He bends light to find him. He takes everything into consideration, including the planets around the sun. Messi, where the impossible becomes the easy. Where the magical becomes the predictable! Pulls it out of the fire."

Messi: A

Maybe Ray talked me into it, or maybe he pulled me back from the brink of becoming so jaded by Messi's excellence that I've come to expect the impossible. But given the pressure of a knockout round semifinal, the exhaustion of playing so many minutes over the past month and the Herons' lackluster play for most of the match, Messi's assists become even more unbelievable. Bravo, maestro.

Cremaschi: A

Cremaschi was a promising youth prospect; in the past month, he's become a man who will be hard to drop from Inter Miami's lineup. After a poor showing against Cruz Azul, he has grown dramatically in poise and courage. He's calmer on the ball, more intentional with his passing, and confident enough to WANT to take the big penalty kick.

Campana: B

Campana managed 12 goals a year ago but has battled injuries and sharing the striker's role with Josef Martinez in 2023. Against Cincinnati, he reminded us why Inter Miami signed him to a DP contract a year ago. A big, mobile target with decent touch and a willingness to pass, he didn't have a GREAT match, but he did manage to be right where Messi needed him to be to score two very important goals.

Honorable mention: Callender and Facundo Farias, who did yeoman's work after replacing Deandre Yedlin in the 58th minute. And shoutout to Jean Mota, who hadn't played since suffering a knee injury April 29. He was rusty, but just to see him on the field made me happy. A good distributor who likes blasting volleys from distance, Mota will give the Herons another weapon in its arsenal heading down the stretch.

Three Down -

Three down feels a bit unfair in such a match, after the slog to a leagues cup title that saw Martino stick with a very consistent first 11, all of whom played massive minutes. But, that's the job soooo, here goes.

Josef Martinez: C-

Other than managing to maintain stride and boot Cremaschi's smooth roller into the net in extra time, the King didn't do much. I'm going to chalk that up to exhaustion. I wonder if he might benefit from sitting against the Red Bulls this weekend.

Sergiy Kryvtsov: C

Kryvtsov looked like the slow and overmatched statue we expected to see against Nashville. I'm not giving up on the Ukrainian anytime soon, even though the club has brought in some young stalwart defenders with better motors. Sergiy generally makes up for his lack of acceleration by using his game sense to be in the right space at t;he right time, and he's a reliable passer out of the back. Kryvtsov is another Heron who will benefit from some rest.

Deandre Yedlin: C

Ranking poor play isn't my strong suit, but I noticed Yedlin in this match because I wasn't noticing him. The speedy U.S. international usually shows his pace to advantage, but I didn't see it Wednesday. He is getting older (31) but I think Yedlin is another victim of heavy legs. We'll see how he fares this week in New Jersey.