Miami’s Marathon Men

These penalty kick shootouts take years off the lifespan for sure, don’t they? The emotion, the pressure, the suddenness of the result when it goes your way and the heartbreaking finality when it doesn’t. I applaud any player that is brave enough to step up to the spot with the whole world watching you take the most rigorous pass or fail test. I will gladly take the heart palpitations that come along with rooting for a team like Inter Miami that just refuse to quit. There are worse vices to have in the Vice City that can drastically shorten your life compared to a brilliant football team with a flair for the clutch time dramatics.


Miami’s Hot Transformation

In one of the hottest summers on record, Inter Miami came into Cincinnati as the hottest team in the MLS. Even with Miami’s massively improved recent form, one couldn’t help but to take a peek at the Eastern Conference table and it wouldn’t take a keen detective’s eye to notice the drastic disparity between both teams. Miami sits at the bottom of the entire league with just 18 points. Cincinnati has been bullying the league so far as the number one team in the league with 51 points out of a possible 72. On paper that meant that this Lamar Hunt US Open Cup semifinal should be a mismatch right? Not quite.

Miami has become a completely transformed team with the insertion of Lionel Messi, Jordi Alba, and Sergio Busquets. This is not the same “little” Miami team (that everyone took turns beating down like the bride in that violent scene from “Kill Bill”) from a few months ago. Miami’s transformation has turned them into an Optimus Prime of sorts. They have metamorphosed like Franz Kafka from a harmlessly calm robotic voice to a Mack truck with 18 wheels ready to run you over. They subsequently substituted their bald rubber tires for hardened metallic legs that can knock down a building and a whetted sword that can simultaneously kill your favorite team’s dreams while making Teddy Roosevelt’s lips curl with the same cheeky grin that Jack Nicholson made famous. Inter Miami is definitely “speaking softly and carrying a big stick,” these days and every team in their way has become a member of the dearly departed.


David vs Golazo

It would be disingenuous to try to sell Wednesday’s matchup at TQL stadium as a David versus Goliath matchup. When you have the G.O.A.T. on your team as the head of a 3-headed hydra of former Barcelona legends along with a goalkeeper like Drake Callender, who has been a co-MVP of sorts (and is finally getting well deserved national team consideration from the USA soccer federation), one cannot sit here and honestly claim that Miami would need a miraculous stone and a sling to slay the giant that is FC Cincinnati. However, if I were to test the limits of my debating skills and try to convince you of that argument, one could say that on Wednesday night Messi was the sling and Campana was the stone that impaled Golaliath’s head. More on that thread later.

Cincinnati broke many molds in the U.S. Open semifinal single elimination knockout match against the Herons in Pink. Miami had made it a habit of punching teams in the mouth early with dominant possession statistics and backbreaking golazos. Knocking the opponent out of their pre-game plan because conceding the early goal has often forced the opponent to have to chase the game in a way that they had not strategically accounted for prior. This led to wide open end-to-end play that suited Miami’s ball dominant style. However, Cincinnati was the side that was on the front foot early in the game.


Miami Fatigue

Miami’s legs had logged millions of marathon miles and magical minutes in the past few weeks and they looked fatigued from the opening kick at TQL Stadium. In the 18th minute, Cincinnati broke through with a massive deflection that scooted past Drake Callender and became a goal for Acosta. The score left Jordi Alba clearly frustrated with the defensive efforts of his backline colleagues. But everyone was trying to catch their 2nd wind by that point. Then only 8 minutes into the 2nd half, Cincinnati struck again in the 53rd minute as Vazquez hit a textbook low and away shot into the lower 90 to double the lead over Miami. It was not looking good. Conceding goals have a way of draining the legs faster than 90 degree heat with high humidity and Inter looked gassed.

Miami was on the mat in a way that they have never been knocked to the canvas before. Sure FC Dallas had a 2 goal lead late, but Miami scored first in that match and looked lively all game. To that point in this cup semi final, Miami had not really looked energized or dangerous at all. They looked listless. Something needed to happen and it needed to happen fast or else Miami was going to take its first (L)oss since Messi put on the pink shirt. Who would be that spark that could light up a team drenched in flood levels of sweat? Who had the indefatigable resolve and everlasting energy to keep pushing through the fatigue and overcome their mental state telling them that it was okay to give up because this one was pretty much already done and dusted? None other than the 36 year old Leo Messi, who has played every minute of every game since he came on the field in the 2nd half of the Cruz Azul match in the Leagues Cup group game.

The most dangerous scoreline in soccer is 2-0. One goal can change everything when you cut a lead in half. Miami was down 2-0 in the 68th minute until a brilliant on target left footed cross from the leg of Leo Messi to the head of Leo Campana was ferociously buried to give Miami life. I am not sure if you have ever run a 5k or a marathon before; but if you have, you will know that it is extremely physically taxing, but mentally even moreso. You need moments of remembrance to keep yourself engaged and motivated to see it through to the end because the reward of finishing is more fulfilling than the fear of failing. That is the kind of life that Messi and Campana breathed back into the burdened backs of their Inter Miami teammates. They were all running that marathon together and they now had another lifeline and some juice back into their wheels.

Fast forward to the 98th minute when the sideline referee had only promised a minimum of 8 minutes of stoppage time and it looked like the dream run of Miami was over. For the final 15 minutes of the game Miami threw numbers forward and kept probing and cycling and crossing and shooting. Desperate to find the equalizer. All of their efforts seemed futile. The fatigue was setting back in and it did not seem like that game leveling goal was coming. Time to pack it in boys. It was a good run nevertheless. We will go again next year. Then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, Messi spotted the penetrating run of Campana into the 6 yard box and with the precision pass of an NFL quarterback, Messi dropped another on point dime right onto the head of Campana, who sublimely buried the header once again and tied the game!

Unbelievable! Unreal! What madness are we witnessing here people? How can one team continue to dig deep in the most exhaustive games and keep finding ways to win? How can one man imbue so much confidence in a team that was left for dead months ago? You have to remember that this US Open Cup started with 100 American clubs from all levels playing each other and Inter Miami needed a penalty kick shootout to get by lower tier Miami FC in the 3rd round to get to this point. Clutch moment after clutch moment. This team, this player. They just keep delivering when the game is on the line.


Clutch Once Again

These Disney movie happy endings for Miami at the end of nip-and-tuck battles have become so routine for Inter Miami. But make no mistake, we are not taking any of this for granted. We remember the 3-0 loss to St. Louis, the 4-1 drubbing at the hands of Philly Union, and barely scraping by Charleston Battery and Birmingham Legion. Those losses helped build the character and resolve of this team that played into the fight they showed tonight after not playing a great game for most of the match.

Inter Miami was able to force overtime in the last minute of stoppage time and then a swinging run from Josef Martinez early in the first half of extra time ended up giving Miami their first lead of the game. From 2-0 down to 3-2 up. Amazing! The TQL crowd was stunned. Miami just needed to see the game out, but sometimes running a marathon from the front of the pack is even more difficult than running from behind because the opponents are going to give their all to run you down and as the frontrunner you have no one to draft off. That is exactly what happened to Inter Miami as they struggled to break Cincinnati’s press in the 2nd half of extra time. Try and try as Miami did to string together some slick passes to break the press, they just could not keep possession of the ball and everyone could feel Cincannti’s equalizing goal coming and it inevitably came 8 minutes before the finish line that Miami was desperately trying to keep their lactic acid filled legs moving towards. We were all level at 3-3 and going to a penalty kick shootout again!

Lionel Messi was struggling to move by the end of the overtime period but there was no doubt Tata would not be making a sub. Messi was staying in the game and he was taking the first penalty kick, which he professionally put away with the calm of crystal clear lake on a breezeless day. Both teams went up to the spot and put away their penalty kicks with confidence and swagger. It got to the 5th round of the opening segment and Drake Callender stepped up and made another huge save by denying Nick Hagglund who went low and to the right. Then it was all up to the 18 year old Miami raised Argentine, Benjamin Cremaschi, to put us through to the final just like he did as the 5th penalty taker against FC Dallas. The stones on that kid to step up and blast the ball near the right post and reward his Inter Miami teammates for all of their efforts to help get them across the finish line of that brutal iron man marathon. The keeper guessed the correct way and he still could not keep the ball from hitting the back of the net. Cremaschi’s smile was infectious as his relieved celebration with his teammates revealed just how much pressure there was on him to finish it off after investing so much in the game. I have no idea how any of these guys will be ready to play Saturday night in New Jersey against the New York Redbulls after playing 90+ minutes for the last 6 matches and 120+ minutes in Wednesday night’s game, but I guess we will cross that bridge when we get there. For now, we are in another final and it will be at home in DRV PNK Stadium against the Houston Dynamo. Vamos Miami!


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