Can FC Cincinnati Be the First to Topple Lionel Messi’s Inter Miami?

No MLS team has figured out how to stop Miami’s pink steamroller since the Messi(ah) arrived last month. Will FCC have the answers tonight at TQL Stadium?

Global soccer’s White Walker is coming in the form of Lionel Messi, who played his first match with Inter Miami on July 21. Twenty nine days and seven matches later, he has 10 goals and Miami, dead last in the MLS regular season standings, has lifted a Leagues Cup trophy.

And tonight, just four days after that Leagues Cup glory, Messi and Miami visit TQL Stadium for a U.S. Open Cup semifinal. Three days after being on the receiving end of a 3-0 dog-walking by Columbus in Hell Is Real, FC Cincinnati must deal with the greatest soccer player ever. I hope the Garys enjoyed their two weeks off!

Miami acquired more points (21) in just over a month with Messi than it did in 22 league contests. They averaged a touch over three goals per match in the Leagues Cup, including a shocking 4-1 semifinal demolition of Philadelphia in Philly (more on that in a second). Yet, for all the hype surrounding the Messi(ah)’s arrival in the Queen City, the reality is the 36-year-old will be playing his sixth match in 22 days. I originally assumed Messi would start tonight on the bench, much to the chagrin of the paying customers who have forked over the equivalent of a car payment or a month’s rent to see the magic man. But Miami coach Tata Martino recently said that, although rest for Messi is coming, that respite won’t come tonight.

You see, Miami finishing off its thrilling trophy run—Messi’s 44th career piece of silverware won, the most in soccer history—was the best thing for FC Cincinnati. Or so I thought. Not only does the Leagues Cup winner qualify for the CONCACAF Champions Cup—which unites top clubs from North America, South America, and the Caribbean—but the victor garnered a spot in the tournament’s round of 16. And the Champions Cup winner earns a berth in the quarterfinals of the FIFA Club World Cup to play top squads from around the globe.

The reality is, had Miami lost the Leagues Cup final or triumphed in the third place match (won by Philadelphia), the Herons would have still qualified for the Champions Cup.

The victor of the U.S. Open Cup earns a spot in … the CONCACAF Champions Cup! Hence my thinking that Miami would play it safe and bring Messi off the bench or have him start the match but play 60-odd minutes. Not with Trophy No. 45 on the line, it seems. So, will FC Cincinnati be able to contain the other pink-clad phenomenon sweeping the country? (I wonder if Messi has seen Barbie yet?)

Out of Miami’s seven Leagues Cup wins, its thorough beating of Philly in Subaru Park—where the Union hadn’t lost since late March—was its grandest Leagues Cup achievement. Longtime Philadelphia gaffer Jim Curtin’s setup was wrong, and the Union’s transition defense was uncharacteristically poor. FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan, Curtin’s good friend and former assistant, surely took note of what his former boss got wrong.

Recovering from Hell in Columbus

The second 2023 edition of Hell Is Real was not inconsequential for FC Cincinnati, but its eight-point cushion in both the Eastern Conference and in the race for the Supporters’ Shield allowed Noonan to play it safe with his roster Sunday evening in downtown Columbus. Starting center back Yerson Mosquera, nursing a minor injury, was not risked, nor was backup striker Dominique Badji, who is recovering from a long-term injury.

With Matt Miazga unavailable through yellow card suspension, FCC was always going to be up against it defensively vs. a desperate rival seeking to avoid dropping both Hell Is Real derbies for the first time since the Orange and Blue joined MLS in 2019.

The visitors went down 2-0 after 23 minutes, first after Crew midfielder Aidan Morris stunned with this wonder strike. FC Cincinnati were so poor defensively that it made Morris—a very good national team-level player—look like former Liverpool great Steven Gerrard on the night. An unlucky hand ball on Alvaro Barreal led to a converted penalty eight minutes later. It’s not like Columbus were undeserved leaders; they came close to scoring a few additional times. And despite FC Cincinnati’s middle third activity being a disjointed nightmare, it took a last-second clearance off the Crew goal line to keep FCC off of the first half scoreboard.

The second half was defined by Cincinnati’s incompetence and Columbus’ sterling passing regimen. Most concerningly and quite bluntly, FC Cincinnati’s body language frankly sucked for stretches of this match. Multiple players failed to get stuck in at times for loose balls and appeared to have their spirit broken by Columbus’ never-ending stream of incisive passes. The final numbers were horrific: The Crew had nine shots on target and converted nearly 90 (!!!) percent of their 580 passes. The visitors managed a measly, season-low 0.3 expected goals.

I suspect the vibes will be improved tonight. Miazga will return, adding his All-Star-level play and irreplaceable leadership to the back line. FC Cincinnati responded well to its previous two league setbacks, tallying a victory over Portland and a draw with New England, a match in which Cincinnati was far superior. Noonan has proven himself to be an adept motivator and tactician, and I suspect he will deliver the goods tonight.

But it all might not matter. The Orange and Blue could play well and still get caught up in Messi’s pink steamroller. Such is the new reality of Messi’s MLS: Even during the height of summer, winter can strike at any moment.

Grant Freking writes FC Cincinnati coverage for Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @GrantFreking.

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