By James Nalton.
What if there was a version of the English FA Cup, the Spanish Copa del Rey, or the German DFB Pokal but for the United Sta… there is!
It’s called the US Open Cup and it reaches its conclusion this week with a final in Fort Lauderdale between Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami and Houston Dynamo.
Florida Soccer Soldiers, Deportivo Lake Mary, New York Pancyprian-Freedoms, Lansdowne Yonkers, D’Feeters Kicks, LA Monsters, Chicago House, BattleBorn FC, Elk Grove Blues, Tobacco Road FC, Vistula Garfield, Galveston Pelicans, Steel Pulse, Peak Eleven, Team Tevez, Aegean Hawks, Clearwater Chargers, Outbreak FC, Brazos Valley Cavalry, Capo FC, Des Moines Menace, Park City Red Wolves, Ventura County Fusion, Crossfire Redmond, Ocean City Nor’easters, FC Motown, Project 51O.
All-time great soccer names and the name of an all-time great, now in soccer.
All of these names have already graced the US Open Cup this season, whether in the early rounds of qualifying, the early rounds of the Cup proper or, in Messi’s case, the semifinal and now possibly the final with Inter Miami.
The doubt around Messi’s presence in the final is due to an injury he has been carrying and whether he will be fit enough to feature.
The way this injury is being managed suggests a calf or thigh issue not serious enough to stop him from playing altogether, but one that needs some kind of rest and recovery if he is to play at all, even in a short burst to the level of intensity required.
He was taken off before halftime in his last Major League Soccer (MLS) outing, against Toronto FC and didn’t feature in Inter Miami’s most recent MLS game against Orlando.
For all the hype around Messi’s move to MLS, he has barely featured in the league itself, making most of his notable appearances in the Leagues Cup as well as the semifinal of the US Open Cup against FC Cincinnati.
Since Inter Miami lifted the Leagues Cup title, the first in the tournament’s expanded format, head coach Tata Martino’s priority has turned to the US Open Cup.
Available to make his MLS debut in New Jersey against the New York Red Bulls, a few days after that semifinal which Inter Miami won on penalties after extra time, Messi only appeared from the bench.
He still scored a memorable goal, ably assisted by the Miami-born Argentine-American 18-year-old, Benjamin Cremaschi. It was fairytale stuff for both.
Martino has said they will decide Messi’s involvement in the US Open Cup final as close as they can to kick-off.
He said that if this was a regular season game in MLS, Messi wouldn’t be playing, but the importance of the final means he might.
This also suggests his appearances for the rest of the MLS season will be few and far between if he appears at all.
The Inter Miami head coach is keeping his cards close to his chest to give his side the best chance of winning.
“I [would] have to acknowledge something that would modify the approach of our opponent,” Martino told Inter Miami reporter Franco Panizo, subsequently reported by the Athletic.
“Why give that information out if I can keep it to myself? I know that his presence is of interest to people in terms of whether to buy a ticket or not, but what we want is to try and win the game.
“You win the game by being better than your opponent, but it’s small details that can make things work better for us.”
Houston Dynamo, Inter Miami’s opponents, might be somewhat overlooked amid Messi Miami mania.
Houston has only lost once in its last eight games across the US Open Cup and MLS, winning five and drawing two before losing to Sporting KC at the weekend, perhaps with their minds already on the cup final.
It is not a given that Inter Miami will win, with or without Messi. After all, it needed extra time and a penalty shootout in Cincinnati to get here in the first place.
The story of this final and the headlines around it might, understandably, be Messi-centric, but, in turn, this will help raise awareness and intrigue of a tournament that still goes under the radar somewhat.
This despite it being the only competition open to professional, semi-professional, and many amateur teams in the US regardless of the league in which they play.
The US Open Cup is also, technically, the only national soccer championship in the US, in that teams from all levels can enter and it is limited to US teams.
Messi has the chance to add the most historic cup in United States soccer to his list of honours, something not even Pelé was able to do during his days with the New York Cosmos as NASL teams refused to take part.
If Messi wins the US Open Cup, this year, next year, or in what could be his final season at Inter Miami in 2025, it will be the cup that solidifies his status as the greatest of all time.