MessiMania Sparks Last Four: #USOC2023 Semifinal Preview

The 2023 Open Cup Semifinal stage features clashes between road warriors Real Salt Lake at Houston Dynamo and MLS toppers FC Cincinnati and Inter Miami – who’ve become the toast of the world’s game since the arrival of Lionel Messi and Friends.
By: Jonah Fontela

We’re down to our Final Four, folks

And the landscape has changed some since our Quarterfinal Round in June.

Previous strugglers Inter Miami CF are born anew as a super-team with the arrival of Lionel Messi and his former Barcelona teammates Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. The South Florida club’s Semifinal on the road against MLS’ top squad, FC Cincinnati, on August 23rd (7 pm ET LIVE in English on CBS Sports Golazo Network, Paramount+ and Spanish on Telemundo and Peacock) promises all the fireworks.

The other Semi (also on August 23rd at 9:30 pm ET and LIVE in English on CBS Sports Golazo Network, Paramount+ and Spanish on NBC Universo and Peacock) isn’t shy on storylines either. Houston Dynamo, coached by two-time Open Cup winner Ben Olsen, are the only former champions still alive in the tournament. The Texans host Real Salt Lake who, under coach Pablo Mastroeni and led on the field by captain and club hero Damir Kreilach, have become a fearsome foe during the 2023 Open Cup.

Cincinnati Swagger vs. MessiMania

The last time Inter Miami played a game in the 2023 Open Cup also happened to be the day that Lionel Messi made his intentions known of a pending move to the young MLS Club. And the arrival of not-so-arguably the best player to ever play the game was bound to move some needles.

Since his arrival, Messi’s impact on the humble club has been staggering. The seven-time Ballon d’Or winner and 2022 World Cup champion scored ten goals in seven games and served up one assist (all en route to lifting the inaugural Leagues Cup) as Inter Miami have a new and glamorous look. 

“It’s great [Messi’s arrival and influence] for our team and for our league,” said Inter’s young American goalkeeper Drake Callender, the recently crowned best goalkeeper of the 2023 Leagues Cup who’s been sensational in the club’s four-game run through the knockout obstacle course of the 2023 Open Cup. “We’re close to lifting a trophy for this club and that’s why we do what we do – so this is a special moment.”

Standing in the way of more Inter joy is FC Cincinnati who, it should be noted among all the Miami hoopla, are the best team in Major League Soccer for a reason.

Eight points in front of their closest chasers in MLS’ eastern conference, the Ohioans – who reached an Open Cup Semifinal in 2017 as a second-division USL Championship club – boast the likes of Argentine stars Lucho Acosta and Alvaro Barreal and USMNT standouts Brandon Vazquez and Matt Miazga.

Also in Pat Noonan’s well-balanced FC Cincy side is one Ray Gaddis, who came out of retirement at the start of the season to help round out the locker room and add on-field steel and grit. In addition to being one of the best man-to-man markers in recent MLS history, he’s a player with huge experience that includes three Open Cup Finals with former club Philadelphia Union.

“We want to try to do something special here,” said Gaddis, who expects another huge and vocal crowd at the brand-new TQL Stadium as he aims for a place in his fourth Open Cup Final. “This is an opportunity to try to get a championship and we need to make sure we’re ready to do what needs doing.”

RSL’s Road Dogs vs. Lone Star Former Champs

Real Salt Lake’s dialed-in on this year’s Open Cup.

“Our front office has made it a priority this year,” said head coach Pablo Mastroeni, who reached an Open Cup Final as a player in 2000 with the now-defunct Miami Fusion. “Now it’s about closing the deal.”

A win over Houston Dynamo on the road in the sweltering heat of late August would guarantee that RSL host the September 27th Open Cup Final. Lucky for them, road games have been the Utah club’s cup of tea so far this year as they moved from 12th to their current perch of second in MLS’ western conference.

The Quarterfinal win over LA Galaxy is the only 2023 USOC game RSL won at home

RSL went on a run of 11 consecutive games away from home that only ended when LAFC dropped them from the Leagues Cup in the Round of 16 earlier this month.

The Rocky Mountain men have also been productive on the road in the Open Cup, winning three of four contests out away from their America First Stadium in Sandy, Utah. Recent signings like ‘Chicho’ Arango and Nelson Palacio have also boosted the team’s on-field performances.

“Now it’s about getting through,” said captain Damir Kreliach who’s scored four goals in RSL’s four Open Cup games, acting as the glue in a team that’s been rotated heavily through the tournament. “We know our identity of being humble and fighting for each other and we know what it would mean to bring a Final home for all the fans and the people in Salt Lake City.”

Houston Dynamo, up and down in MLS league play this year and currently on the cusp of playoff contention, aim to play spoilers. The only defending champions still alive in the tournament, they rode a wave of home games to the title in 2018. And while no players remain from that victorious side, current head coach Olsen has bags of experience in the Open Cup and can rely on stars like Mexico national team icon Hector Herrera and Amine Bassi.

Panamanian Adalberto ‘Coco’ Carrasquilla has been outstanding for Houston Dynamo

“Momentum is real,” said Olsen who, in 2013, led MLS’ worst team (D.C. United) to an Open Cup crown (coincidentally beating RSL in the Final in Utah). “Trophies talk and when the fans see you holding one, that doesn’t go away.”

“The vibes are high and the guys are confident,” said striker Corey Baird, who scored a first career hat-trick in Houston’s impressive run to these Semis. “We’re a couple of games from winning a trophy and that’s always there in the back of your head – you have to appreciate that.”

We’ll know our two Finalists when the clock strikes midnight on August 23rd. The whos and wheres of that Decider – 108th in Open Cup history – are yet to be determined. But the possibilities are captivating

Be sure to WATCH both Semifinals LIVE in English on CBS Sports Golazo Network, Paramount+ and in Spanish on Telemundo, NBC Universo and Peacock) 

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