Stop Lionel Messi? Houston Dynamo know there's no "magic bullet"

Ben Olsen - Houston Dynamo - US Open Cup

How do you stop Lionel Messi, who’s widely considered the greatest player of all time?

That question is front of mind for Houston Dynamo FC head coach Ben Olsen as they visit Inter Miami CF on Wednesday evening for the US Open Cup Final at DRV PNK Stadium (8:30 pm ET | CBS Sports Network, Telemundo).

But as Messi’s world-record seven Ballon d’Or awards and 44 trophies for club and country might suggest, corralling the Argentine World Cup winner is far easier said than done.

“There’s been thousands of coaches that have tried to stop him, and thousands of coaches have failed constantly,” Olsen said. “I don't have the magic bullet to stop Messi. No one has proven that they do have that.

“But of course, we're all trying to do the same thing – limit his space and condense the areas. There are all these little tricks that you can do to try to limit him, but they've also put together a very good supporting cast around him. So, if you dial in too much there, there's a lot of other guys that can hurt you."

Not just Messi

It’s uncertain if Messi will feature in the USOC Final, which occurs just one week after he and left back Jordi Alba exited Inter Miami’s 4-0 win over Toronto FC in the first half with injury concerns. Tata Martino, Olsen’s managerial counterpart, has effectively ruled Alba out (muscle fatigue) and called Messi a game-time decision as he deals with the lingering effects of scar tissue from an old injury.

Whatever the decision is, Olsen is hyper-aware of the talented roster Miami have assembled with a transformational summer transfer window headlined by the ex-FC Barcelona trio of Messi, Alba and Sergio Busquets.

Facundo \[Farías\], I don’t know how they get this guy,” Olsen said of Miami’s U22 Initiative attacker. “I think he’s a lovely player. I think on any other team he’s probably a DP-level player. I think he’s an excellent player.

“The youngsters are coming up, \[Robert\] Taylor is serious. Both forwards, \[Leonardo\] Campana and Josef \[Martínez\], are handfuls. I mean, this team without the big three is still a very good MLS team and they’ve shown that when those guys weren’t in the lineup. … Their ability to create this team in a short amount of time with this amount of depth is pretty remarkable. I don’t really care who plays, we just understand that whoever’s going to be out there it’s going to be a very tough test for us.”

Herrera's impact

While Miami generate plenty of headlines, Houston have a centerpiece of their own in Mexican international midfielder Héctor Herrera. He’s gone from being a mid-2022 arrival to a Best XI presented by Continental Tire-caliber player in 2023.

“He’s been given the keys to this team and he understands the group dynamics,” Olsen said of Herrera, who joined from LaLiga side Atlético Madrid. “He has a real weight on his shoulders and responsibility to do well for the club and make sure he’s a huge part of turning this club around. He’s a DP, a lot of money spent to bring him here. He understands all that.

“Last year, he took a little heat because he didn’t come in here and tear the league up. But he had a World Cup looming last year, he had a little injury, it’s a brand-new team, it wasn’t his team. And this year was a blank canvas for him, and his leadership on and off the field has been helpful for me, and certainly on the field his play has been just a lot of fun to watch.”

Houston on a mission

Beyond Herrera’s standout play, Olsen is hyper-aware of what a victory would mean for the Dynamo and their broader project since majority owner Ted Segal and general manager Pat Onstad took over.

“The hoopla of Inter Miami and the star players and the eyes that will be on the game – great,” said Olsen. “We need visibility. This club needs more of that. I think people undersell us. We’re trying to win back fans here and restart the culture that maybe has been a little bit off for the last decade. This is just another chance for us to move forward as a club and reward the fans that have been coming out all year.”

Houston, who brought in 17 new players for Olsen’s first year at the helm, can lift their second USOC trophy in six years (also won in 2018). They’re also in prime position to return to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, sitting fourth in the Western Conference table with a 2024 Concacaf Champions Cup spot already secured. It’s a team reborn.

“I’m not sure starting this year, if we’re really sitting around and being honest with each other, we thought we’d be in a final,” Olsen said. “But things have clicked a little quicker in some areas than we thought.

“… We’re the underdog. I don’t think a lot of people are picking us. Again, it’s a space that we’ve lived in and rallied behind in some ways this year. Hopefully we can lean on that tomorrow to play free and play brave to compete for a championship.”

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