It wasn’t long ago that Benja Cremaschi and Noah Allen were academy kids living in hope.
They played for a crowd of empty and indifferent seats. Dreaming of one faraway day, with hard work and a little luck, being tapped for a few minutes with their hometown Inter Miami. If you told them last year what 2023 would look like, they’d have been right to laugh in your face and question your grip on reality.
“Everything’s just been really quick. Really fast,” said the 18-year-old Cremaschi, now a regular starter for the South Florida club’s first team – suddenly an unstoppable force in MLS – and teammate to all-time legends of the game Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba.
Young Allen, still only 19, is of a similar opinion: “It’s, uh, pretty surreal.”
Local Boys Done Good
Both are local to the Miami area, Cremaschi from the barrier island of Key Biscayne and Allen from nearby Pembroke Pines. Both still live with their parents. Their new superstar teammate and captain, Messi, has been the best player in the world for virtually every year they’ve been alive and it takes the seven-time Ballon d’Or winner just shy of four hours to match the teenage pair’s annual combined salary.
Surreal is underselling it.
“It was my dream just to play for my hometown team,” said Allen, unable to keep a smile from spreading across his face when he thinks back to those humble pre-Messi days when winning was not on the menu for Inter Miami. “Now we’re doing amazing and winning games and trophies and the fans are coming out and everyone is so excited in South Florida – it’s exceeded my dreams.”
It’s hard to overstate what’s happened in South Florida’s soccer scene since June 7th, the day Messi took to the internet to say he’d be coming to play in Miami. “When we heard the news, it was just amazing,” said Cremaschi, who recently earned his first call-up to the U.S. Men’s National Team and chuckles when he tells of how everyone’s phones were “blowing up” with the news no one could have imagined just a few days before.
Inter Miami, at that time, were in the depths of last place (out of play-off contention by a steep 13 points) and on an 11-game winless streak in league play. But they’d scraped and clawed – without the help of any superstars – into the Open Cup Quarterfinal. That game, by chance or happenstance, was to be played that very night in Birmingham, Alabama.
The pressure was on to make sure Messi and his pals would have a chance at a trophy when they arrived in the coming weeks. “We were away and playing on artificial turf, and their crowd was intense,” said Cremaschi about the slim 1-0 win over second-division USL Championship side Birmingham Legion. It was a game that Inter, in fairness, were fortunate to survive.
Since then, with the near mystical influence of Messi, Inter have moved well up from worst. And they’re taking aim at first. They claimed the inaugural Leagues Cup and climbed into playoff contention in the league (now just seven points out with seven regular-season games left). And with a win over FC Cincinnati in the Semis, they’re through to an Open Cup Final in Fort Lauderdale.
That’s enough to give anyone whiplash. So let’s consider for a minute, the moment a youngster meets a living legend and greets him as a teammate.
First Glimpse of the Icon
“I remember parking my car and seeing him [Messi] walk into the facility,” said Cremaschi, who has a trove of Messi’s club and Argentina jerseys at home and is part of a big Argentine family. “I just felt empty, like there was a weight on me. Empty inside, but like I was stuck to the ground.
“I was so nervous to meet him, but he was such a calm guy so it was easy to interact,” added Cremaschi, a sentiment echoed by his former academy and now first-team mate Allen: “He’s been amazing to everyone in the locker room, especially the young players.”
With the intros out of the way, it was time to play. In training: with and against Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. That’s when the nerves disappear and the learning, the hyper-drive make-sure-you-take-notes, fast-track education begins.
“I gotta’ be honest,” smiled Allen, a defender, “I was going against Messi in a training session early on and, man, he really turned me and had a nice finish after – I thought to myself, ‘hey, you gotta’ be sharper, you know this is the best player in the world.’”
Not all the lessons are Xs and Os.
“What really surprised me about him is his willingness to keep on winning,” said Cremaschi, an influential attacking midfielder, who teams up well with Messi and who scored the winning penalty in a pressure-filled shootout in the Open Cup Semifinal against FC Cincinnati. “He does not like to lose.
“A lot of people thought Messi would come here to MLS and be relaxed and just be comfortable,” added Cremaschi, whose recent USMNT debut against Oman added another level to the budding talent’s meteoric rise. “But he’s here to win and his competitiveness is something that a lot of us look up to. At the end of the day, we get attached to that.”
Open Cup Final Beckons
The next chance for Inter Miami’s young guns – remnants of the old version of the club – and the magical trio of Messi, Busquets and Alba, comes on September 27th. It’s the Open Cup Final, against an impressive and surging Houston Dynamo who would like nothing more than to spoil a party.
“What’s great about this one is we’re going to be playing in Miami,” said Cremaschi who, for context, was born the year Messi won his first international trophy: the 2005 U-20 World Cup in the Netherlands. “Of course, there’s pressure to playing at home, but we love it and we want to lift a trophy in front of our fans and in front of our families.”
The winning spirit of their new captain is rubbing off on these kids. The one that saw Messi rise from a small boy in Rosario to winner of everything there is – and accepted as the greatest player to ever play the game. It’s there in the eyes of these teenagers who, months ago, we’re chasing a far humbler dream.
“The mentality is to win the Open Cup,” said young Allen, taking a cue from the Master. “The mentality is to win the Open Cup, to win every trophy we compete for, and that’s what we’re going to go out there and do.
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on X/Twitter.