National Writer: Charles Boehm

Messi Mania takes Open Cup: Cincinnati “up for the challenge” vs. Miami

Lionel Messi - US Open Cup - preview

Pat Noonan is acutely aware he sounds much like all the other coaches who’ve faced red-hot Inter Miami CF over the past month – and for that matter every opposing manager who’s tried to minimize the damage inflicted by Lionel Messi for the past two decades or so.

“You just look at all the games and there's different approaches from the opposition. So whether it's teams that are a little bit more aggressive in their pressing or teams that are sitting in, he still understands how to find the game and find the ball and moments to make plays,” FC Cincinnati’s head coach told reporters at Cincy’s Mercy Health Training Center on Tuesday, one day before Messi and the Herons hit TQL Stadium for a highly-anticipated US Open Cup semifinal against his MLS-leading squad.

“And even when you do things right, even when you get pressure to a top player like him, he has the ability to beat you one on one. Now the whole picture changes in how you have to defend the goal.”

FCC’s staff took note of how organized and disciplined Nashville SC’s league-best defense was in Saturday’s Leagues Cup final at GEODIS Park, and still couldn’t stop Messi from conjuring up a breathtaking solo strike into the top corner to set the terms of that match, which Miami eventually won via a heart-pounding penalty-kick shootout.

“You could spend 89 minutes doing as good of a job as you can to stop an important player,” said Noonan. “And in one moment, even with the right defensive structure, the right numbers around the ball, he still has the ability to change the game with the spectacular.”

So ‘stop the GOAT’ isn’t exactly on the Orange-and-Blue’s to-do list for Wednesday evening (7 pm ET | CBS Sports Golazo Network, Telemundo). Though Noonan asserted they are certainly "up for the challenge."

“I thought Nashville played a very good game, but it just takes a moment or two and he can make the difference. I think you saw that in the Nashville game,” said Noonan, who also confirmed his side will be without central defender Yerson Mosquera as the Colombian continues to rehabilitate what’s been termed a lower leg injury.

“You try to tell your team that this player, there's nothing you can do to stop him,” he added in reference to Messi. “That's not the message. So we just try to talk through the ways to either limit his ability to get on the ball, or when they do have the ball and when plays break down, because they will, try to recognize where he might show up to cause you some problems.”

It’s not just the “aura,” as Philadelphia Union veteran Alejandro Bedoya put it, of Messi himself. It’s also the unparalleled hype, hubbub and ticket demand that now follows the Florida club everywhere they go. Even in proud Cincinnati, where a local bakery made headlines by advertising cookies bearing the Argentine legend’s face, only for FCC supporters to inundate their social-media posts with irate responses to what they considered an excessively warm welcome for their team’s adversary.

And then there’s the dramatic extent to which Messi and fellow July arrivals Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba have elevated the performances and spirits of their Herons teammates. And the potent momentum they’ve built up by turning Miami’s months-long winless skid beforehand into a seven-game unbeaten run through Leagues Cup. Though that piled extra mileage on their legs in midsummer heat, it also provided Gerardo “Tata” Martino and his staff with valuable match reps and psychological buy-in for their approach.

“One imagines a scenario, and the competition may have taken you to a totally different scenario from the one you thought in the previous one,” said Martino of Leagues Cup on Monday. “To compete so much in this tournament, and end up winning, yes, I'm happy. Because when you're trying to build a team, you come across a competition like this and win it, surely this makes everyone's enthusiasm and confidence grow. Now we have a future that looks much better.”

Cincy got knocked out by Nashville in the Leagues Cup Round of 32 and thus got two weeks of rest earlier this month. They would surely have preferred to be entering this massive match with some momentum of their own after that break, yet find themselves in a different situation after Sunday’s stinging 3-0 loss to their Hell Is Real in-state rivals the Columbus Crew.

Whether that setback dents their confidence or sparks a ferocious response against Messi and Miami remains to be seen. A place in next month’s Open Cup final is on the line.

“I think we had a bad day at the office on Sunday, unfortunately; Columbus had a good day,” said defender Matt Miazga on Tuesday. “That’s part of the job, it happens all the time. We’ve been able to have a lot of good days as well, that’s why we’re first in the league … It moreso kind of shows us, look, if we’re not putting the effort in, we’re not going to be getting results. So we’ve got to make sure we’re fully focused, and it’s that time of the year now where everybody’s pushing.

“Our mentality shouldn’t change just because of one player, one team,” the US international added of Messi. “We have a job to do. You respect everybody the same way and you’ve got to make sure you do your job.”