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Lionel Messi of Inter Miami against Cincinnati in the semi-finals of the 2023 US Open Cup at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Wednesday. Image Credit: AFP

Cincinnati: Lionel Messi had two assists and converted in a shootout to lead Inter Miami over MLS-leading Cincinnati 5-4 on penalty kicks after a 3-3 draw on Wednesday night and into a US Open Cup final against Houston.

Miami remained unbeaten in eight matches with Messi heading into his Major League Soccer debut on Saturday at the New York Red Bulls. The 36-year-old, a seven-time Ballon d’Or winner, joined the team last month and led it to the title of the Leagues Cup.

Cincinnati led 2-0 on goals by Luciano Acosta in the 18th and Brandon Vazquez in the 53rd before Messi set up goals by Leonardo Campana in the 68th minute and seventh minute of stoppage time.

Josef Martínez put Miami ahead 3-2 three minutes into extra time, but Yuya Kubo retied the score in the 114th minute.

Lacking sharpness

Messi made Miami’s first attempt in the shootout, and the teams were perfect through four rounds. Herons goalkeeper Drake Callender saved Nick Hagglund’s kick in the fifth round, and Ben Cremaschi made his PK to send Miami to another tournament final.

Houston won the other semi-final, beating visiting Salt Lake 3-1 in extra time. The Dynamo got goals from Héctor Herrera in the fifth minute of first-half stoppage time, Adalberto Carrasquilla in the 105th and Luis Caicedo five minutes into the second extra session. Anderson Julio scored an equaliser in the 64th.

Miami will host the final on Sept. 27.

Cremaschi quickly was met by his teammates after the ball hit the back of the net, and they danced around in a group circle on the field while Cincinnati players knelt in disappointment.

“I think we were lacking sharpness to navigate that first half,” Miami coach Tata Martino said through a translator. “We were a step off. I saw a team with one gear less than our rival. The good thing about all of this is that we didn’t drop our shoulders, we pressed on. It’s not easy in a semi-final to turn things around the way we did. We adapted a lot. I think we were controlling the game well in the second half. And the penalties, after that ... If I’d had this kind of luck in penalties for the rest of my career, things would have been a lot less stressful.”

Messi scored 10 goals in seven League Cup matches and was held scoreless for the first time since joining Miami. His first assist came off a free kick and his second on a long cross into the penalty area set up Campana’s second goal on a header.

Before the penalty shootout, Messi gathered his teammates and appeared to be giving a speech. After Kubo made the first attempt, Messi placed his spot kick low to the left corner while by backup goalkeeper Alec Kann, who starts cup matches, dove the other way.

'He's a leader'

“He’s a leader on the pitch and with the group he’s shown it for a long time, not only here with Miami but also with Argentina,” Martino said. “Luckily, players get behind his leadership and enthusiasm in his response for every moment, no matter the circumstances, and today he showed it more as a conductor than a finisher, and you saw that with the pass late in the match but he makes difficult plays look easy.”

Messi didn’t attempt a shot until right before the final overtime whistle, an attempt easily saved.

Throughout the first half, FC Cincinnati had done well to close the space whenever Messi got on the ball.

“He makes the delivery on the plays that matter, and that’s where he’s a difference-maker,” Cincinnati coach Pat Noonan said. “I thought as a whole the guys did a pretty good job of limited moments where he could be in dangerous spots to cause us problems, at times, having him drift a little further from goal and be a playmaker. I thought we handled those moments pretty well along the back line and I thought the 1 versus 1 moments and when we could double, we got a lot of those moments right to be able to win the ball, so we knew it was going to be a difficult challenge, but I thought overall the guys had some good discipline in trying to limit a very elite player.”

Acosta scored his 14th goal in all competitions, a header from Aaron Boupendza’s feed. Vazquez, a US national team forward, scored from outside the penalty area off a low cross from former Atletico Madrid and Colombia international defender Santiago Arias.

Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow, wide receivers Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd and defensive end Sam Hubbard were in attendance and took part in pre-game festivities.

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Lionel Messi celebrates the goal by forward Leonardo Campana (back) as he leaps onto teammates during the match against Cincinnati during the second half at TQL Stadium. Image Credit: Reuters
Messi says he wants to ‘enjoy every moment’ of career
Messi says he wants to “enjoy every moment” of the remainder of his career and has no date in mind for when he will finally hang up his boots.
The Argentine World Cup winner won his first trophy with his new club Inter Miami with a penalty shoot-out win over Nashville, scoring his 10th goal in seven games since moving to the Florida club in the Leagues Cup final.
The 36-year-old signed a two and a half year contract with Miami last month but he said he hadn’t even begun to think about his future beyond that deal.
“I’m not thinking about it (retirement) yet, to be honest. I like to play, I enjoy being with a ball on the field, competing, training,” said the seven-times Ballon d’Or winner in an interview with Apple TV+.
“I don’t know how much more I’ll play, but I’ll try to take advantage until I can, until I’m well and then I’ll see. For later there is time to think, to analyse and choose,” he said in the interview, recorded before Saturday’s triumph for his new Major League Soccer club.
“Today the most important thing is to enjoy what’s left, whatever it is, it can be little or a lot,” he said.
“Enjoy every moment, especially because this is not coming back and then I don’t want to regret anything,” he added.
Messi said that his experience so far with Inter Miami left him convinced he had made the right move when his contract with Paris Saint-Germain ended and he repeated his disappointment at his time in the French capital.
Signing for Inter, he said, “was a family decision, (to) try to look for the good of the family. We had spent two complicated years, the truth is that we had not been doing well, we had struggled,” he said.
“It was a bit like going back to what we were when we were in Barcelona, enjoying the day to day, the kids, the family being well. I enjoyed the day-to-day in sports, which was not happening to me,” he explained.
“My trips to the national team were my happiest moments because I enjoyed the place where I was, my teammates and I wanted to come here and find the same thing,” he said.
“Today, after some time has passed, I can say that we were not wrong and we were right when we said this was the right place,” he added.