The Great Eight (Semifinals): Cup Tragedy in Cincy & a Messi-BennyBall Final

The latest in our Great Eight Series, where we take a light-hearted Round-by-Round look at some of the quirkier moments and happenings of America’s favorite soccer tournament.
By: Jonah Fontela

Fans of the 110-year-old Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup (now in its 108th edition) live by its magic moments and unique essences. And the Semifinal Round of the 2023 competition tossed up more than its share on August 23rd. Join us for a look back at eight moments of note from the two games, where Lionel Messi conjured up more magic despite FC Cincinnati’s firm defiance, and Houston Dynamo – our lone surviving former champion – made a case as potential party poopers ahead of the September 27th Final.

Muted Messi Still King

Messi, like the bloom of life itself, finds a way. He was tired. He’d played seven games in 28 days en route to a Leagues Cup crown and – in the 100-degree heat of southern Ohio for our Open Cup Final – it seemed his spark had dimmed. It didn’t help that he and his fellows Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba were up against the best team in MLS and FC Cincinnati’s unapologetically unimpressed fans. After all, he’s a human being. Even he has his limits. Right? Probably. That night, with Inter Miami second-best in the first half and down by two with 20 minutes left, the fat lady hadn’t exactly sung – but she was warming up. Then a free-kick. Out left and inch-perfect from Messi to the head of battering-ram striker Leonardo Campana. The fact that he didn’t celebrate, only mouthed the word vamos to his teammates, might have sent a shiver up the collective spine of a packed house of 25,513 fans  – most supporting the home team and willful in their opposition to the inevitable. But again it was the same routine. Messi’s machine eyes scanned the scene deep in midfield before his impossible, 45-yard ball picked out Campana’s head to level the scores. One minute was left in regular time. Two more goals fell – one for each team – in the extra 30 minutes. But this Inter Miami side don’t rattle in a shootout. Just like that, a last breath, it’s gone.

Tragedy for FC Cincinnati

You Cincy fans. You promised a hostile reception for Messi and you delivered. “Just another player in our way,” explained Matt Broo from the home supporter’s group, the Pride. He helped raise the huge tifo of local hero Ezzard Charles to a roar before kick-off. The boxer was a natural middleweight, but he fought up and went the whole way with unbeatable heavyweight Rocky Marciano (and split the man’s nose in half in a rematch). The fighter embodies the spirit of this gritty Ohio town that backs its heroes with all it’s got. And while it’s cold comfort to these home fans, who greeted every Messi touch with a boo, you played your part in an Open Cup Classic. A contest for the ages. We know the hurt was doubled, coming as it did, almost six years to the day from that 2017 Semifinal. Across town at the old home of Nippert Stadium, FC Cincy, as a second-division upstart club not yet anointed by the Major League Soccer decision-makers, led the New York Red Bulls of MLS by two goals with 15 minutes to go. Then the bottom fell out. You didn’t deserve to lose that night, same as you didn’t on this one. But you plowed those bitter seeds of failure into a blooming future as the pride of Major League Soccer, and we know you’ll rise again.

Spotlight on Miami’s Supporting Cast

The game ended, as so many in the Open Cup do, with a penalty shootout. The cruelest of the cruel. It should not have been Nick Hagglund to see his shot saved. The local boy, a veteran now who’s endured countless injuries through his career, is another symbol of Cincinnati’s grit. But this game is mean, man. It wants what it wants. Drake Callender, wide-smiling student at Cal Berkeley when Messi was picking up his sixth of seven Ballons D’Or, guessed right, dove left and the end was in sight. Up stepped Benja Cremashci, an amateur reserve last year and all of 18 years old, to make it official. “Sometimes I have to remind myself this is my real life,” said Callender – a future USMNT star on his current trajectory. Young Cremaschi has to pinch himself too. “So much has changed,” he said. “We know that we could be down by a bunch of goals and still come back in a matter of seconds.”

Messi in Good Company

We’ll have to talk about the Final. Lionel Messi will play in it. Read that again, but slowly. Consider the meaning of the words. Messi will play in the Open Cup Final. Our old tournament, in its 110th year, with ancient heroes Bart McGhee and Bert Patenaude peeking out from ancient shadows. The mustachioed genius of Billy Gonsalves back there too. The Brooklyn Italians, the Greeks and the Maccabees of LA in the 70s and 80s – before the big starry-eyed bonanza of Major League Soccer. Let’s note last year, 2022 — when Sacramento Republic, strivers of the second division USL Championship, snubbed twice by the decision-makers and gate-keepers of that same MLS, climbed all the way to our Final. Our thoughts turn to all of them now. Every single one. To our fans too, up late on weekday nights in those wild early rounds. You share in The Dream only the Open Cup can provide. We think, also, of every single player who ever lined up in this competition – from the Amateur Qualifying Rounds to the showpiece Finals. From 1913 to this shining today. From bumpy patches of dry grass in Tulsa, Oklahoma to the grand cathedrals of the modern American game. We take this moment to salute you all. Here, if you’re in it, you’re family. So we welcome you, Lionel Messi. You’re one of us now. 

Vivid Cup Memories in Houston

Let’s not overlook the other team in this glorious Final to be. Oh, you Houston Dynamo. Unfashionable in orange. Forged in the unrelenting heat of your Texas home. We know a thing or two about how you fight down there. It wasn’t long ago we sweated it out with you on a hot September night. That was 2018 and your veteran captain DaMarcus Beasley – the gleam of a rookie-year kid still sparkling in his eyes – lifted our trophy up into the wet air that hung over Downtown Houston like a generous fog. Remember when you were Semifinal underdogs against LAFC – the fearful superteam in their inaugural year? And now, with Luis Caicedo and Amine Bessi and Adalberto ‘Coco’ Carasquilla, could you be shaping for another upset? Might you have one of the best midfields in American soccer? We see it. And we know you won’t mind the role of underdog and party-spoilers. Might you even relish it, Dynamo fans?

Ben Olsen’s Been Here Before

We see you, Benny Olsen. Old grafter from the early days of MLS. Back before the glitz and global spotlight and in among the leaky racoon-plagued bowels of old RFK. They say you had the Heart of a Lion. The description fits. No one wanted to go head to head with Olsen in the midfield in those days. You lifted an Open Cup trophy as a player in 2008. And then you did it again outside the lines, early in your coaching career. Let’s think back to it as 2013 was long ago. Is it true that your D.C. United was dead-last in MLS that year? The worst team in the league? And you had to go away to play the Final at Real Salt Lake – who were contending for a league and Cup double that year and loaded with stars? Remind us how that turned out, Benny. A 1-0 win for the lowly United – in a grindhouse of a game – you say? Oh my. Folks talked of BennyBall back then – combative and counter-attacking. It’s hard to describe and harder to combat. Some, prone to arrogance, used the term as a slur. Was it? We’re not so sure. 

Party Poopers in the Heart of Texas

There’s class in this Houston Dynamo team. Not a single global superstar. Sorry. No Messi or Busquets or Alba. But they have local novas – hungry ones – known and feared in the chaotic churn of the Concacaf zone. They’ll sharpen their teeth in the month between now and the Final – an assumed coronation for glamorous Inter at home in Miami. The Dynamo boys will chew gravel and raw garlic. They’ll stiffen their fists in brine. There’s Hector Herrera – HH – the colossus and captain and long-time battling Mexico legend. He’s not used to losing, or being assumed a loser. Amine Bessi, three assists in a 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake in the Semis, is a name that may have slipped past you. But he’s aces. So is that wild-haired Adalberto Carrasquilla. They call him ‘Coco’ and this Panamanian has it all in the midfield. “Even when it’s going tough for us, we stick together and no one’s above doing what’s needed for the team,” said Corey Baird, once a U.S. National Team hopeful who’s having a revival year to remember in our Open Cup.

A Fond Farewell

This is the hardest part. Always is. The farther a run goes, the tougher it is to take its end. Real Salt Lake, you’ll have to wait for your first Open Cup crown. But how you battled and scraped away from home, in hostile and inhospitable lands. How you brought us the class and swagger of your ‘King’ Damir Kreilach – and the fire always simmering away in the belly of coach Pablo Mastroeni. We’ll not forget you. FC Cincinnati, top of Major League Soccer – a club that will always be connected to our U.S. Open Cup – we salute you and your outstanding everything this year. For the battling road win at Red Bull Arena, to the wide ready smile of aging Ray Gaddis and those safe hands of your leader Alec Kann, we thank you.

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