Later tonight, Lionel Messi and ten other Inter Miami players will take on the Houston Dynamo in the 2023 US Open Cup Final. The soccering world will be turning on CBS Sports or logging into their Paramount+ accounts at 8:30 pm ET to watch a very pink team and a very orange team compete for silverware.
While New York City FC doesn’t have anything at stake in this game, the club and their followers will be closely watching what happens tonight at DRV PNK Stadium in Fort Lauderdale: NYCFC face Miami on Saturday, and the US Open Cup Final will tell us a lot about the team that will take the field this weekend.
A New York City win on Saturday will put them in a strong position to make the playoffs, and a Miami depleted by a high-stakes midweek game will be easier to play than a full-strength team featuring an in-form Messi. Here are five things NYCFC fans should look out for tonight.
1. Will Lionel Messi play?
The biggest question hanging over the US Open Cup Final is whether Messi will start. The 36-year-old left the field just 37 minutes into Miami’s game vs Toronto FC last Wednesday reportedly because of fatigue, and he didn’t suit up for the match against Orlando City on Sunday.
Messi reportedly wasn’t in training yesterday. According to The Athletic, Miami head coach Tara Martino will make a “game-time decision” if Messi will be in the Starting XI, or even make the lineup card at all.
2. Will Jordi Alba play?
The wingback departed that Toronto game two minutes before Messi with what is rumored to be a hamstring injury. Alba also didn’t suit up for the Orlando game on Sunday.
While Messi’s impact on Miami has made global headlines, Alba’s addition is just as important to the squad’s success: He scored two goals and provided two assists in 11 games in all competitions, and his runs along the left flank create space for Messi, Josef Martinez, and Leonardo Campana in the middle.
His replacement in the Orlando game was Noah Allen, a promising 19-year-old with one goal and two assists in 14 MLS league games.
3. Are Drake Callender and the defense vulnerable?
The so-called Messi Effect has transformed this Miami team: It seems that the stardust trailing the greatest player alive is bringing out the best in every player on the squad.
Goalkeeper Drake Callender is no exception. The 25-year-old has put up some of the best performances in his life since Messi joined the team, and was called up to the United States Men’s National Team in August.
But he was found out earlier this month by Atlanta United, when they scored five goals over a Miami that was without Messi and Alba. Callender severely underperformed his xGOT of 2.35 that day.
That was just one week after a similarly poor outing against Sporting Kansas City at DRV PNK Stadium. Miami won that game 3-2, but they were lucky to get a result in a game in which the defense looked vulnerable.
4. Will the game go to penalties?
Miami’s recent cup success has come after winning penalty shootouts: The club are three for three when the game goes to PKs.
But to make it to a penalty you first need to end the game scoreless after 120 minutes of play. Miami have done just that a remarkable three times out of a possible five.
Most recently, that happened in a physical US Open Cup semifinal against FC Cincinnati that saw both sides make a combined 1109 passes, take 33 shots, and commit 40 fouls.
That’s a lot of soccerballing action.
If tonight follows suit, you can expect to see a heavily rotated Miami side on Saturday.
5. Will Tata go for it?
The US Cup might be the most historic tournament in the United States, but it isn’t as prestigious within MLS as winning the MLS Cup.
But Messi, Alba, Sergio Busquets, and most of Miami’s hundreds of billions of newly-minted fans aren’t a part of MLS culture (at least not yet). As far as the global audience that tunes into tonight’s game is concerned, the US Open Cup is a major award that should be taken seriously. After all, should Miami lift the US Open Cup tonight it will have a place in Messi’s biography right next to his La Liga titles, Champions League wins, Olympic gold medal, and World Cup win.
The fact is that Miami have only a slim chance of making the MLS Cup Playoffs, which would then force them to win four rounds, almost entirely played on the road, before reaching the final.
Tonight, silverware is within their reach. All they need to do is find a way to win with or without Messi and Alba, and with a shaky defense.
NYCFC fans will hope that Miami triumph.
In penalty kicks after 120 minutes of physical play.
And that the team take some time to savor the win, and celebrate the victory by taking advantage of Miami’s legendary nightlife: They should go out and enjoy themselves.
Really, they should stay out and live it up. They’ll have plenty of time to sleep it off these next few days.