They came to see Messi.
Thousands of pink Inter Miami jerseys -- the Argentine World Cup winner’s name spread across shoulders -- swarmed the stands of DRV PNK Stadium ahead of the 2023 U.S. Open Cup Final.
But the home team’s talisman, the centerpiece of the American game since his arrival to these shores in July, didn’t dress. The news trickled out slowly, almost apologetically, from the faster-moving corners of the internet. The tournament’s official X account made it plain an hour before kick-off: “The GOAT won’t dress for the #USOC2023 Final…”
The mysterious injury that saw Messi quit the game against Toronto FC six days before – and miss the entire next game against Orlando City -- kept him from the bench, the field and the locker room too. He was to play no part in the Final of the country’s oldest and proudest competition, dealing a blow to the three-year old club that’s become the toast of the sporting universe in the hyperspace speed of the few short months since Messi and his pals Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba turned up.
The blousy black shirt Messi wore in the field-level VIP suite, watching on as a helpless spectator with his family, had the look of mourning garb. Without him, the home team’s hunt for a second trophy in two months (they won the inaugural Leagues Cup) turned to ash despite the best efforts of former Barcelona legend Busquets, who stood in as captain.
What the home fans got, instead of their newly arrived hero and his superhuman interventions, was a Houston Dynamo at their very best. Orange was the color and 2-1 was the score – a first Open Cup Final away-day victory since 2015.
Midfield sensation ‘Coco’ Carrasquilla, Mexico icon and captain Hector Herrera, former reserve player Griffin Dorsey and Nelson Quinones, a terror on the flank, all played above themselves. They raced out to a two-goal lead inside 34 minutes. And when second-half substitute Josef Martinez – an Open Cup champion with Atlanta United in 2019 – scored for the home side two minutes into stoppage time, it was mere consolation.
Inter Miami climbed out of a two-goal deficit in the Semifinal in Cincinnati a month ago, but it was Messi who picked the lock that day. With him on the wrong side of the touchline, the Final was a road too far.
“Maybe people will start to talk about us a little more now,” smiled Erik Sviatchenko, the Dynamo defender who collected his 12th winners medal as a pro after the final whistle rang through the wet air of Fort Lauderdale. “We came into this game maybe not the most recognized team in the league, with everyone talking about Miami and their stars, but we were able to do something special tonight.”
The stadium was near empty when Sviatchenko and his teammates raised the Open Cup trophy. All that Miami Pink had been erased, replaced with a core in Orange. Vibrant, fresh-looking Orange. The thin corner of visiting fans rejoiced and rattled the temporary scaffolding of the North Stand with their celebrations. And their heroes danced and vamped before them with their shining new prize.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever cried after a game,” said the former MLS Rookie of the Year Corey Baird, unable to control his smile. “There’s such a good feeling in this team; we all work so hard for each other and it’s just such an incredible group of guys to be able to play with.”
A Dynamo Renaissance
The Dynamo deserve their current shine.
The last ten years haven’t been kind to the club that burst on the scene in 2006 and 2007 with back-to-back MLS titles – setting a bar unreasonably high. Those successes were followed up with two more MLS Cup Final appearances before the bottom fell out and the Texas club descended into “a decade of irrelevance,” according to new coach and high-energy leader Ben Olsen.
“This trophy is for the City of Houston,” said the boss who, after celebrating wildly with his players for a time, sat alone on the pitch in a folding chair to soak in the moment. Carrasquilla was in a similar mood: “The fans deserve this because their desire and their passion helped make this a reality today.
“It’s their victory as much as it’s ours,” he said
“Soon we’re back at it,” added Sviatchenko, pointing to the game against FC Dallas three days after the Final as the Dynamo try to clinch an MLS playoff berth in a fiercely contested Western Conference. “But tonight we celebrate. Tonight we have a few beers and enjoy our moment.
“Tomorrow we’re back at it because there’s more to do,” the defender added, the words of his coach ringing through the celebration-soaked locker-room: “Nights like these are rare.”
Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on X/Twitter.