The Open Cup is Inter Miami & Messi’s Best Trophy Hope

Lionel Messi’s best shot at silverware in his first year Stateside is in the historic U.S. Open Cup where his new club, Inter Miami, face an August 23rd Semifinal against FC Cincinnati.
By: Jonah Fontela

It was no simple task for Inter Miami CF to reach the 2023 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup’s Last Four.

They beat three second-division teams from the USL Championship by slender one-goal margins. One of those wins – against the Charleston Battery – came thanks to a lone own-goal and another via a penalty shootout. The 2-1 win over Nashville SC in the Round of 32 was the only time they faced an MLS team.

It was neither a comprehensive nor convincing run to the Semifinals, which will both be played on August 23rd and broadcast live on CBS Sports (details to follow). But no matter how you slice it, the 110-year-old Open Cup, showcasing every level of men’s soccer in the U.S. in straight knockout competition, is Inter Miami’s best chance at silverware.

We should note here that Inter Miami – currently the worst team in Major League Soccer, on paper at least – are about to get a hell of a lot better.

The Best Ever…in Miami

Lionel Messi’s here.

He touched down on July 11 and was presented to fans in Miami on July 16. Images of him buying breakfast cereal at a Publix, the Florida grocery staple, have buzzed the internet. Every further step he takes into the American cultural landscape will be monitored and examined in microscopic detail. He brings with him a media circus, social media mayhem and generalized bedlam. 

The arithmetic has changed as Ray Hudson, area legend and avowed Messi fanatic, summed up.

“It’s a quantum leap. Stunning, Fantasy Land. The kind of move that seemed impossible,” said the 68-year-old Hudson, a legend of the broadcast booth who was head coach of the last Miami club, the now-defunct Fusion (of MLS), to reach an Open Cup Final (2000).

Messi (center) will be joined in Miami by Busquets (left) and – potentially – Jordi Alba (right)

“But there’s a lot of work to be done,” Hudson said, before adding the major caveat. “Inter Miami is probably the worst team in Major League Soccer.”

But Messi brought reinforcements. The arrivals of pals Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba make it a reunion from the trio’s glory days together at FC Barcelona, where they won every single thing available bar none.

Here’s a list for readerly ease:

  • La Liga
  • Copa del Rey
  • UEFA Champions League
  • Spanish SuperCopa
  • UEFA SuperCup
  • FIFA Club World Cup

*Messi is a 7-time Ballon d’Or winner (given to the world’s best player each year), Olympic Gold Medalist and Youth World Cup winner

**All three (Messi, Busquets and Alba) have won the World Cup with their respective national teams

Stars and Stats

But Miami’s new megastars will have to deal with a certain reality. Inter Miami are bottom of the 29-team table in Major League Soccer at the halfway point of the current season. Inter have claimed just five wins and 18 points from 22 games (as of July 16, the date of Messi’s official unveiling).

The post-season MLS playoffs are not an impossibility, but they’re a long reach with the team currently mired in an 11-game winless streak.

Rodolfo Pizarro, crucial in Inter’s Cup run, had his contract terminated to make room in the roster

The upstart Leagues Cup, which runs from July 21 to August 19, does offer a potential route to a trophy for the rags-to-riches Inter. But it would likely require them to win seven games in the space of a month in a tournament that also includes, in addition to MLS’ best, the top teams from Mexico’s first division.

That’s a tall order, no matter how many superstars you throw into the mixer.

One-time Barcelona boss Tata Martino has been brought in to lead the new-look Inter Miami. And the former MLS champion, during his time at Atlanta United, understands the facts on the ground. 

“As long as there’s the possibility, we can’t stop trying,” the new boss said of his hopes of reaching the playoffs (Inter are currently 13 points off the last qualifying spot for the postseason) before admitting his team’s best chance for silverware is the 2023 Open Cup. “But there are other competitions and opportunities ahead of us. We’re in the Semifinals of the Cup (the U.S. Open Cup).”

“It’s exciting. I haven’t really grasped it yet,” Inter Miami’s young American goalkeeper Drake Callender, among the team’s best players this year, told “You’re talking about one of the greatest players to ever play [Messi] joining your team.”

Callender, who’s in line for a potential spot among the USMNT pool of goalkeepers ahead of the 2026 World Cup, got his start as a pro in the Open Cup. He understands the romance and history of the knockout tournament better than most. And he might just be the man to advise Messi and the rest of the high-profile arrivals about what the tournament means in the American soccer ecosystem.

USMNT up-and-comer Drake Callendar is among Inter Miami’s top performers in 2023

“The Open Cup is where I started and there’s beauty to it – all the teams from all the divisions, ” the 25-year-old said. “And to be this close to a trophy means something. To me and to us as a club.”

It would require two wins for Inter Miami to lift the oldest prize in American soccer – played out every year since 1914 with a brief pause in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to Messi and Co’s first trophy in the U.S., it would be Inter Miami’s first as well.

The club, founded in 2018 and part-owned by one-time Major League Soccer glamor-signing David Beckham, is in only its fourth season in MLS.

But as close as the Open Cup trophy is to being in Miami’s hands, it’s quite far by another metric.

FC Cincinnati a Formidable Semifinal Foe

Inter have to travel to FC Cincinnati’s TQL Stadium to take on the best team in the league in front of some of its best and most fervent fans. The rampaging Ohio side are top of the league at the halfway mark with eight points more than their closest chaser (as of July 16) and a full 33 more than Inter Miami.

FC Cincy boast the likes of MLS All-Star captain Lucho Acosta, star striker and 2019 Open Cup champion Brandon Vazquez and his USMNT teammate Matt Miazga.

It should also be mentioned that the winner of the 2023 Open Cup qualifies for the Concacaf Champions Cup (formerly the Concacaf Champions League) as is the case every year. That's another potential trophy for Miami and Messi – and a route to the FIFA Club World Cup, to be played in the U.S. in 2025.

You don’t need to be great at math, or have a functioning crystal ball, to know that Inter Miami, just one step from a first-ever Final, should make an A-1 priority of our venerable U.S. Open Cup.  

Fontela is editor-in-chief of Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.