It’s a question of not just tactics and personnel, but increasingly psychology, too, that continues to bedevil a steadily growing list of adversaries, as the Herons simply refuse to lose since the arrival of the GOAT and his old friends Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba last month.
Like Nashville SC, FC Dallas and Cruz Azul before them, FC Cincinnati came close – oh so close – to ending Miami’s unbeaten run on Wednesday night, dominating the first hour of their riveting US Open Cup semifinal clash at a packed, feverish TQL Stadium and carrying a 2-0 lead into the 68th minute.
Organized, composed, fierce, Cincy were on top and in control. IMCF coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s shift to a 5-3-2 formation to match the Ohioans’ 3-5-2 shape didn’t really work, necessitating a mid-game shift back to their more familiar 4-3-3. The visitors looked outmaneuvered and exhausted on a broiling-hot night in southern Ohio that marks their eighth match in the 34 days since Messi and Busquets first donned that pink kit.
“We're in position to advance,” said FCC coach Pat Noonan afterwards. “I know the guys gave everything, but you know, this one’s – this one’s disappointing.”
Then, yet again, Messi happened, a footballing Thanos able to ruin opponents with a snap of his fingers.
First the Argentine legend served up a pinpoint free kick for Leonardo Campana to nod past Alec Kann to halve the deficit, rallying his side and prompting FCC to drop into an increasingly defensive posture – which fatefully included the withdrawal of their livewire attackers Luciano Acosta and Brandon Vazquez.
Just when it seemed the Knifey Lions had done just enough to inflict the first L of Messi’s fledgling North American adventure, he laid another delicious, curling delivery onto Campana’s head in the seventh minute of what was originally calculated to be eight minutes of added time, a stunning equalizer that set the stage for another dramatic Herons' penalty-kick shootout win, their third this month.
“He has a response for every moment, no matter the circumstances,” said Martino in Spanish after a 3-3 draw ended 5-4 in PKs. “And today he showed it more as a conductor and not a finisher, and you saw that with the pass late in the match [to Campana].
“He makes difficult plays look easy,” added Martino. “It was an assist of a súper crack.”
‘Crack’ in this context connotes one of the highest compliments a player can earn in South American soccer – an honorific expressing truly elite skill and mentality. And indeed Messi showed his alien-like excellence even under the watchful attention of Cincinnati’s rugged, aggressive pressing system, finding a way to influence the outcome despite his team’s energy-sapping accumulation of intense matches and dramatic moments like this one.
“He makes the delivery on the plays that matter. And that's where he's a difference maker,” said Noonan, whose words on Tuesday about Messi’s “ability to change the game with the spectacular” proved crushingly prophetic.
“As a whole, the guys did a pretty good job of limiting moments where he could be in dangerous spots to cause us some problems. At times having him drift a little further from goal and be a playmaker, I thought we handled those moments pretty well along the back line. And I thought the one-v-one moments, and when we could double, we got a lot of those moments right to be able to win the ball.
“It's one or two moments, and that's the difference.”
Trophy push (again)
So Miami are bound for another cup final, the Open Cup’s climax on Sept. 27, where they can add to the Leagues Cup trophy they hoisted in Nashville on Saturday night. How much longer can they sustain this torrid pace and the jaw-dropping resourcefulness that has sustained it? That question is looming in front of Martino & Co. and will surely, eventually, impact their aim for a late run from last place into the Audi 2023 MLS Cup Playoffs.
“It’s been a long four weeks, and it's been a long year for now,” Miami’s teenage homegrown Benjamin Cremaschi, an impact substitute who assisted on IMCF’s third goal and converted the final spot kick in the shootout, told CBS Sports’ Nico Cantor postgame. “It's passed very fast, but it's very physically and mentally demanding.”
Noted Martino: “You also have to take into account the large number of games that we played in 45, 50 days … Leo and many other players are reaching an important physical limit and from today we will start to evaluate this – how do I face at least the next three games.”
This group may yet hit a wall. A trip to New Jersey to face the New York Red Bulls awaits this Saturday, a cross-country journey to play LAFC looms, the first of six regular-season matches in the month of September, as well as two FIFA international windows in the next two months for the hefty chunk of national-teamers among them.
For now, at least, the sweetness of their victories pushes them onward, along with the unique, exhilarating confidence that comes with the presence of Messi in their corner. And thanks to Houston Dynamo FC’s extra-time win over Real Salt Lake in the night’s other Open Cup semifinal, the Herons will next month host the showcase final of this 108-year-old tournament.
“I’m experiencing it the same way everybody else is, with a lot of intensity. Because if there’s a word to describe these past 45-50 days, it’s ‘intensity,’” said Martino, who yet again pointed out how his team’s hectic schedule has limited their work on the training ground since his hiring in June.
“A lot of our wins have been more due to our character than our game and, obviously, due to having the best player in the world playing with us.”