FC Cincinnati’s road to U.S. Open Cup final goes through Messi

FC Cincinnati captain Luciano Acosta got his picture taken with fellow countryman Lionel Messi on the field in Qatar moments after Messi helped Argentina win the 2022 World Cup in December. Acosta and his son have signed Messi jerseys, and he hopes to get another one, this time his Inter Miami CF kit, after Wednesday’s clash in the U.S. Open Cup semifinals.

A chance to play on the same field with the Messi is exciting for the FC Cincinnati midfielder, but more than anything, Acosta wants to beat “the GOAT.”

Cincinnati hosts Inter Miami CF on Wednesday at TQL Stadium in the club’s second U.S. Open Cup semifinal appearance, first since the magical 2017 run that sparked the flames for what led to a Major League Soccer invitation the following year.

Messi scored 10 goals in seven games to lift the Herons to the Leagues Cup title, claiming the trophy Saturday with a shootout win at Nashville, and he has Miami looking nearly unstoppable.

“He makes Miami a completely different team,” Acosta said. “That’s not so good for us, because we have to play him in the semifinal But we’re at the top of the table (in MLS) for a reason, and we’re going to beat him.”

The Orange and Blue sit atop the MLS standings by eight points while Miami is currently last, but in order to have a shot at the Open Cup trophy (in a completely different competition than league play), they will have to be the first to beat Miami since Messi joined last month.

FC Dallas and Nashville both put up a good fight in the final four of Leagues Cup, as Miami needed a penalty shootout to advance in the semifinal at Dallas and to win the championship at Nashville. However, Miami made its other games look easy.

“We’re top of the table regardless, but no MLS team has beaten Messi yet, they’ve tied him and lost in PKs,” defender Nick Hagglund said. “We want to be the first to do that. That’s our goal at the end of the day, to move on this and that takes going through him.”

Messi has won the Ballon d’Or as the world’s best soccer player a record seven times, he’s won numerous team titles and now is already looking for a second trophy with Miami. An aura surrounds him, and he’s made Miami the hottest ticket in MLS. Tickets for the Open Cup semifinals posted on SeatGeek.com on Tuesday ranged from $200 to $2,500.

Hagglund, a Lakota West graduate and former Xavier University player, said it’s exciting for the city of Cincinnati to be hosting a Cup semifinal but especially with a player like Messi involved.

“As a kid, if I was growing up here and had the opportunity to see Messi play here in my hometown, it would be an incredible experience,” Hagglund said. “And getting the opportunity to be a part of the team now and play for a trophy — we have two games for a trophy — it’s exciting for the club, and our job is to get it done.”

Cincinnati’s back line has a tall task stopping Messi, especially with starter Yerson Mosquera out due to injury. Coach Pat Noonan said he remains day-to-day, but the club has ruled him out for Wednesday so as not to rush him back too soon and perhaps jeopardize his availability for the end of the season.

As a center back, there’s a good chance Hagglund will be tasked with defending Messi directly, but Hagglund said he is up for the challenge.

“I think after the game it’s going to be surreal, but when you’re in the game, it’s about doing the job in the moment,” Hagglund said. “I’ve played against a lot of great players that came through MLS, obviously Messi feels a bit more special, but when you are on the field, it’s time to get the job done. He’s playing a game just like you are so that’s the mentality. Afterward, you can think about what that’s like.”

In addition to Messi, Miami has added two of his former FC Barcelona teammates in defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets and left back Jordi Alba. The team also went through a coaching change, bringing in former Atlanta United and Mexican national team coach Tata Martino.

Messi has been the game-changer, though, and Noonan said he’s been discussing ways to limit his touches.

“He’s capable of the spectacular,” Noonan said. ... Even when you get pressure to a top player like him, he has the ability to beat you one-on-one with how the whole picture changes and how you have to defend the goal, so I imagine our preparation isn’t much different than everybody else trying to stop a key player.

“So that’s an important part of what we talked about, but are we just talking about it or are we actually able to execute? We’ll get the answer tomorrow, but I’m looking forward to seeing these guys go out and try to tackle this challenge.”


Inter Miami vs. FC Cincinnati, 7 p.m., Paramount+, Star 64

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