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US Open Cup semifinal tonight

Four teams are two wins away from a trophy and a spot in the Concacaf Champions Cup. FC Cincinnati take on Inter Miami and Houston welcomes RSL. Check out the full schedule here.

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This suddenly feels a lot bigger

I can’t lie. I can’t even pretend I’ve been excited for tonight’s US Open Cup semifinal games since the final whistle blew on the quarterfinals. Back in early June, it kind of felt like a given FC Cincinnati would be the heavy favorites in this one to the point I’m pretty sure I wrote something vaguely suggesting Cincy might be a bit embarrassed to lose at this point. A lot has changed.

At the time, we had just learned Lionel Messi would be on his way to Miami, but we didn’t have a start date and definitely didn’t know what the worst team in the league would look like with the world's best player (and a few of his legendary friends). At the time, RSL were sitting in the middle of the pack in the West, and rumors about the potential arrival of Chicho Arango were just beginning to swirl. At the time, Houston were a cagey, but imperfect team that felt like they could take down anyone on their day especially if that day happened to be in Houston when the heat index eclipsed 100 degrees, and, well, I guess not everything has changed.

Still, this semifinal has gone from a sure bet for Cincy to a genuine battle between three of the league’s best teams and a Houston team that’s slowly but surely making progress toward joining them. With a trophy, and a Concacaf Champions Cup spot on the line for a couple of teams, tonight feels a lot bigger than we expected. We’re talking full-strength lineups and a level of intensity you may not typically see on a normal matchnight. Here’s what to keep an eye on.

Can FC Cincinnati follow the Nashville blueprint?

Look, you aren’t going to stop Messi. You’re just not. Stop trying to pretend like you’re going to stop him. He had four Nashville players and a goalkeeper in front of him from 20 yards out during the Leagues Cup final, and they didn’t stop him despite doing everything right. You have to do better than doing everything right. You aren’t going to.

However, you can limit the Robert Taylors and the Leo Campanas of the world. If you reach the final whistle and the only goal is from a slightly more than world-class finish, you've accomplished something pretty special. That’s Cincy’s job tonight. Limit everyone else and capitalize on an inconsistent Miami defense while you still can. It seems like a pretty plausible goal for the Supporters’ Shield leaders to pull off, doesn’t it?

I’m obviously not convinced they’ll actually do it of course, but I do wonder if there will be a point where we reach a wall for Inter Miami. They’re coming off a high-intensity, high-emotion win on short rest, and they’re on the road. They can’t win every game and survive every penalty shootout forever, right? MLS comes for us all in due time. Do we see that begin to happen tonight? Or do we just go ahead and chalk up another trophy for the Herons?

Can RSL handle the heat?

Did y’all see what Houston did to Portland this weekend? The Dynamo beat up on the Timbers so bad the Gio Savarese era ended. It looked like the Timbers lost any fight they had in them as soon as Houston went up early. Part of that is because the team as a whole feels like a lost soul right now. But the other part of that is Portland wanted no part of an on-field heat index of 116 degrees.

Well, there’s good news for RSL. The high in Houston is just 101 today. It might be a bit gentler than the 106-degree day they had Sunday. Still, there’s a distinct home field advantage for the Dynamo here. And that might be enough to level this one out. Even though there’s definitely a gap in quality between Houston and RSL, it’s not a chasm. This Houston team has been inconsistent, but seems to be slowly but surely building toward a culture and a roster slightly more in line with their former days as an MLS Cup contender. After last weekend the Dynamo are sixth in the West and just five points behind RSL in the standings.

RSL are the favorites though. Even on the road. They’ve been playing some of the league’s best soccer for a couple of months now and have enough quality on their roster to convince you their success isn’t a fluke. Houston will need to be something close to their best tonight. The good news is they won’t have a hard time remembering what that feels like. They were just there on Sunday.

Other Things

Messi to start Miami's US Open Cup semifinal vs. Cincy: Although Tata Martino considered giving Lionel Messi some rest after leading Inter Miami to a Leagues Cup title, Messi is set to start on Wednesday against FC Cincinnati.

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Good luck out there. Make it look good.