MIAMI: Lionel Messi inspired Inter Miami to come back from two goals down to beat Cincinnati 5-4 on penalties after their thrilling US Open Cup semifinal ended 3-3 after extra time.
Miami, who won the Leagues Cup on penalties against Nashville on Saturday, are now one win away from their second trophy since Messi joined the club last month.
The US Open Cup is American soccer’s oldest and most important knockout competition, dating back more than a century to 1914 and is similar to England’s FA Cup or Spain’s Copa del Rey.
Miami will face the winners of Wednesday’s other semifinal between Houston Dynamo and Real Salt Lake in the final on Sept. 27.
A month ago Cincinnati, who are top of Major League Soccer’s standings while Miami are bottom, would have been clear favorites in this game but the Florida team are now a very different side to the one which was winless in their 11 league games before the arrival of the Argentine.
But in the intense heat, with temperatures over 100 degrees celsius at kickoff, Miami’s unbeaten run since the signing of Messi and Spanish pair Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, looked to be coming to an end in Ohio against an impressive Cincinnati side.
Inter trailed 2-0 with 22 minutes remaining before the Argentine delivered two perfect assists to striker Leonardo Campana to take the game into extra time.
Messi’s compatriot Luciano Acosta put Cincinnati ahead in the 18th minute and American striker Brandon Vazquez doubled the home side’s lead with a fine strike from the edge of the box in the 53rd minute.
Miami looked tired and disjointed and the change of personnel and formation adopted by coach Gerardo ‘Tata’ Martino left the team lacking their usual fluency.
But in the 68th minute, Messi whipped in a free kick from the left which was headed home by Campana to breathe some life into what had been a tired display from Gerardo Martino’s side.
Cincinnati thought that they had made 3-1 but Yuga Kubo’s effort was ruled out for handball and then the Japanese forward was denied by a fine save from Miami keeper Drake Callender who also denied Santiago Arias.
Then in the seventh minute of stoppage time Messi, from deep on the left, swung in a ball to Campana at the back post again and the Ecuadoran forward angled home his header to force extra time.
Miami went ahead in the first period with Benjamin Cremaschi sliding an excellent pass into the path of Josef Martinez and the Venezuelan made no mistake with a clinical finish.
But Cincinnati bounced back in the second period with Japanese winger Kubo firing a right-foot shot into the far corner past the diving Drake Callender.
The teams were at 4-4 in the shootout when Callender saved Nick Hagglund’s penalty for Cincinnati and Cremaschi converted to book Miami’s place in the final.
The 18-year-old Miami-born Cremaschi, whose parents are Argentine, was congratulated by Messi after his match-winning spot kick.
“I’m living a huge dream,” he told CBS Sports, “Sometimes I sit down and really think about the position that I’m in and it’s incredible, I never believed I was going to be in the spot I am in now,” he said.
There was a more sober view from Martino whose team must now begin their 12-game attempt to climb from last in the Eastern Conference to the playoff positions.
Martino suggested he may be forced to rest some of his players, perhaps including Messi, after an intense eight-game spell.
“Both Leo and many other players are reaching an important physical limit and from today we will evaluate how we approach the next three matches,” he said.
“The fatigue is overcome with all the enthusiasm… I hope the team in the future could play better, but it’s very difficult to do that when you almost can’t rest.”