The day the Messi-to-Miami news broke, Inter’s goalkeeper Drake Callender had work to do.
“The Open Cup needs you to be ready,” he said as Inter Miami CF faced a slippery Quarterfinal on the road against second-division Birmingham Legion that very night – with the eyes of the whole world suddenly laser-focused on South Florida’s MLS club. “There was a lot of noise that day. People were texting me constantly with this really exciting news. The whole Messi thing, man.
“It was a matter of, ‘yes, this is happening’ but we also have to lace up,” added the man recently crowned Best Goalkeeper at the inaugural Leagues Cup. “We have a game to play.”
The 25-year-old Callender was outstanding that night up against “a team from a lower league, but who right then are there eye-to-eye with you – where it’s win or go home.” The Birmingham Legion, one of the Cinderella darlings of this year’s tournament, threw everything they had at Inter with a place in their own historic Semifinal beckoning. “In those games it’s about who wants it more. That’s the deal. We were on [artificial] turf. There were challenges. And the atmosphere was electric.
“There are no blueprint for games like that,” Callender said of the tense 1-0 win on the road, hard fought and in doubt until the final whistle. “And that’s the beauty of the Open Cup – no matter who you are or where, in that moment, you’re out there playing this beautiful game of soccer head to head.”
Open Cup Origin Story
While the magic triangle of Messi, Busquets and Jordi Alba is the talk of South Beach these days, Callender – with lightning reflexes and a mentality geared toward learning and improving every day – is one of the main reasons Inter Miami have reached a club-first Open Cup Final.
It’s no wonder Callender has a soft spot in his heart for the tournament – the oldest prize in American soccer, going back all the way to 1914. The career he has now as an MLS star-in-the-making began in the blood and thunder of the Open Cup, where amateurs and lower-level pros and MLS’ elite all face off in the heat of direct knockout competition.
“I started the 2022 season as the third choice,” said Callender, about being back-up to the back-up in Miami. “But that year’s Open Cup was really my lift-off moment.”
In the cauldron of competition, and against “all levels in the game,” Callender showed his worth to teammates and then-coach Phil Neville. His performance in a Third Round game against crosstown second-division rivals Miami FC, always a hot ticket in town and one you don’t want to lose, got the ball rolling. “The biggest thing was proving to myself that I could do it.”
DeAndre Yedlin, one of Callender’s best friends in the Inter squad and now his USMNT teammate, remembers the game and its impact.
“He [Callender] was amazing,” said Yedlin, an Open Cup winner in his youth with his hometown Seattle Sounders. “It gave the coach the trust that he could keep playing him. He kept us in it and the win [1-0 and tense the whole way] had a lot to do with him. Drake’s career has completely sprouted since then.”
Taking Chances When They Come
Just a few months later, in July of 2022, Callender had locked down the number-one spot at Inter Miami. He always believed in himself; all he needed was the “opportunity to get a chance” that the Open Cup so often provides. He started 24 league games that 2022 season, after not making a single start in 2021, and improved with every outing.
With the Open Cup as his launchpad, Calendar’s now being called into USMNT camps (three so far) and earning attaboys from new teammate and global megastar Messi, who won his sixth (of seven) Ballon d’Ors in 2019 when Callender was still playing amateur college ball and studying law at Cal Berkeley.
That kind of sudden forward motion is enough to give anyone whiplash. But Callendar, born and raised in a small town outside Sacramento, California who believes deeply in “improving the small things every day” and “being ready all the time,” has his feet right there under him for balance.
“If you said at the start of the 2022 season that I would be where I am now, I might have told you ‘OK that’s a bit of a reach’,” he admitted with a smile.
In the month between the Open Cup Quarterfinal in Birmingham, Alabama – the day Messi committed publically to his newest adventure in Miami – everything has changed. Everything in American soccer and the global marketplace and, in a very dramatic way, in the Inter Miami locker room.
Messi scored ten goals in his first seven games in the U.S – leading once-lowly Inter Miami to the club’s first Leagues Cup title in Nashville on August 19th. That’s more goals than any other Inter player in the 25 regular season MLS games so far this year.
It’s no stretch to say that Inter – dead last in the MLS regular season standings at the halfway mark – are now the best team in American soccer.
The Metamorphosis of Inter Miami
As level-headed as Callender is – and he’s one of the most even-keeled young players you’ll ever have the pleasure to meet – it’s all a little crazy.
“I mean, it’s Messi,” he hesitated, as if talking about the Argentine World Cup winner’s arrival in Miami somehow made it more real. “The greatest player to ever play joins your team. It’s hard to really grasp. I’m just a guy who grew up around Sacramento, in a small town, and I’m playing in this league for my second year.
“That moment I walked into the locker room and there was Messi sitting at his locker, that’s when it all became real,” said Callender, who made two critical saves in the Leagues Cup Final shootout and even overshadowed his superstar teammates by scoring the deciding spot kick. “He was my teammate then and I knew ‘this guy is here and he wants to be here’.”
Callender – even with all the new attention – isn’t the type to get ahead of himself. He’s taking notes all the time, bringing onboard every lesson as it comes. Having been through the hard times with Inter Miami – before the glorious now with the whole world watching – he’s within touching distance of a trophy that holds special meaning for him.
“It’s really close. That trophy,” said Callender, considering his words carefully after he helped book a place in the Open Cup Final with more heroics in the Semifinal shootout on the road against FC Cincinnati. “Everybody in the club sees the value of these games and being close to lifting a trophy is something we play for – for the chance to do that.
“And just knowing it’s the Open Cup, the place where it all kind of started for me, means something special,” said Callender ahead of yet another big day on the horizon and a Final in Fort Lauderdale against the Houston Dynamo. “Sometimes I remind myself that this is all real. I mean, this is my real life.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on Twitter.