Glory Calls for ‘Sexy’ Inter or ‘Invisible’ Dynamo: #USOC2023 Final Preview

Lionel Messi’s reborn Inter Miami CF or Ben Olsen’s gritty and in-form Houston Dynamo will lift American soccer’s oldest prize after September 27th’s fascinating Open Cup Final in Fort Lauderdale.
By: Jonah Fontela

One game to go.

Whittled down from a field of over 200 teams when the Amateur Qualifying Rounds began back last fall, only two remain. Both hail from Major League Soccer, the top professional tier in the land. And both possess very different identities and attributes.

Inter Miami CF, who’ll host the September 27th Final at their DRV PNK Stadium, are a club reborn and renewed after the summertime arrival of new captain Lionel Messi and his pals Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba. Visitors Houston Dynamo FC, equal parts rugged and effective, boast one of the league's best midfields and are peaking at just the right time with hopes of spoiling the South Florida beach party.

The winner – whether it’s the suddenly fashionable and irresistible Inter Miami or under-the-radar outsiders Houston Dynamo – will raise the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup trophy and lay claim to the most historic prize in American soccer, first handed out to Brooklyn Field Club 110 years ago.

Be sure to watch live on September 27th at 8:30pm ET on Paramount +, CBS Sports Network, Telemundo, Peacock or NBC Universo (or listen to all the action on Futbol de Primera)

Sexy Miami Showing Strain

Dynamo boss Ben Olsen calls his Fort Lauderdale-based opponents “the sexiest team this league has produced.” And it might just be true. Talk about a club reborn – Inter Miami, before the arrival of Messi and his two lieutenants, were this year’s worst MLS team with five wins and 18 points from 22 outings and a winless streak in the league stretching to 11 games.

Inter barely snuck through to the Semifinals of the Open Cup after twice nearly being knocked out by second-division opponents from the USL Championship (Miami FC and Birmingham Legion).

Since then they’ve embarked on an 11-game unbeaten run in all competitions (only recently snapped by Atlanta United). Messi has scored eleven goals (an average of one per game) and the team claimed the inaugural Leagues Cup – a first trophy for Inter Miami since the club played its inaugural game in 2020.

Inter’s on a tear that culminated in last month’s classic U.S. Open Cup Semifinal win on the road against FC Cincinnati, the top team from this year’s MLS regular season (3-3 a.e.t. 4-5 PKs)

“When we won the Leagues Cup, it started something and the guys in the team really want to relive that moment,” said 19-year-old Miami-born fullback Noah Allen, who’s likely to start the Final with fitness concerns over former Barcelona wingback Jordi Alba. “The mentality has shifted for sure. We’re eager to win every trophy that we're competing for.”

Benja Cremaschi, Allen’s former (and recent) teammate in the Inter Miami academy, sees an edge for his side playing at home. “Of course we have the pressure of it,” said the 18-year-old midfielder who scored the winning penalty in the Semifinal shootout in Cincinnati – and recently earned his first call into the U.S. Men’s National Team. “But we love it and we want to lift a trophy in front of our fans and in front of our family and give Miami another triumph.”

The new-look Miami revolves around one man. New captain Lionel Messi – World Cup champion and seven-time Ballon d’Or winner. He’s the greatest to ever play the game according to California-born Inter Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender. “His dedication to winning – and to the team – it’s just incredible,”
said the net-minder, also receiving his first call into the USMNT this year, of his skipper and global icon.

But Messi – at the age of 36 – has begun to show the wear and tear of a demanding first few months in the United States. He missed most of a recent league contest with Toronto FC and all of a Sunshine State derby with defending Open Cup champions Orlando City this weekend.

“The importance he puts on training is so intense – you still see the fire in his eyes when he competes,” insisted Callender 

Houston Here to Spoil the Party

The role of underdog suits Houston Dynamo boss Olsen right down to the ground. He won the Open Cup as a player and then, again, early in his coaching career with a 2013 D.C. United side that some would argue was the worst team in MLS history. Their record of three wins and 24 losses that year lends credence to such assertions.

So go ahead and tell him how outgunned his Houston side might be and see if your words are met with anything more than a shrug and a smirk.

Despite ups and downs at the start of the current MLS campaign, the Dynamo have sharpened themselves into a firm fighting fist. They’re hitting peak-form at just the right moment too, with an Open Cup Final and the postseason MLS playoffs on the near horizon.

Olsen says the team feeds off of the energy of being “invisible” in many MLS conversations due to being “irrelevant” for large parts of the last decade.

The 2018 Open Cup champions have been in a state of decline for the last ten years after winning back-to-back MLS titles in 2006 and 2007. But the arrival of Olsen, new GM (and former Open Cup winner) Pat Onstad and a raft of huge talent – especially in midfield – have turned the Dynamo into outside bets to cause chaos in any game they play.

“We’re here to win trophies and to achieve victories,” said Hector Herrera, captain and Mexico icon who’s been a huge part of the side’s seven-game unbeaten streak going into the Open Cup Final. “Of course we have a strong opponent in front of us, but that should motivate us even more – and encourage us to go claim that trophy for the city of Houston.”

Adalberto ‘Coco’ Carrasquilla, who plays beside Herrera in one of the league’s best midfield units, which also boasts Artur and France-born schemer Amine Bassi, is a rising star and one of the in-form players in MLS right now. Still just 24, the Panamanian scored a sensational strike in a bruising Open Cup Semifinal against Real Salt Lake and was named MVP of the latest Concacaf Gold Cup after dragging his underdog Panamanians to the Final.

“It would be a pleasure to go out and win a Final against the best player in history,” he said, referring, of course, to Messi. “Miami will be the favorites, but Houston Dynamo is building an identity too. The respect we have for each other and the effort that we put in as a team is our secret weapon.”

No matter how you slice it, there’s a fascinating match-up in store. Who will it be? Glamorous Inter Miami or Gritty Houston Dynamo? There’s no way to know until the final whistle blows, but – as Ben Olsen will be first to tell you – it doesn’t always go the way the experts draw it up.

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