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Callendar - "You have a team that’s extremely hungry and wants to prove something": 2023 US Open Cup

By Tom Sweezy

Photo courtesy of Cisco's Art

One of the oldest soccer competitions in the United States is back once again for the latest edition of its final, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. The 2023 version of the final features a former cup champion as well as a newbie to the experience: the Houston Dynamo and Inter Miami CF. The Houston Dynamo won this competition only a few years ago, taking home the 2018 title.

Houston also has two other trophies in their club’s cabinet with the 2006 and 2007 MLS Cup titles. On the flip side, a newer club to MLS in Inter Miami is in their second cup final ever… and second of the 2023 calendar year. Inter Miami won the 2023 Leagues Cup only a few months ago after the arrival of their star summer signings.

Historically, the matchup between Houston Dynamo and Inter Miami CF has been in the favor of Houston. In the clubs’ three all-time games, Houston has won two of the three, while Miami has one win as well. The lone matchup so far this season saw Houston take the win, 1-0 at Houston back in April. Both of these teams have had long years so far going through their respective MLS seasons, U.S. Open Cup games, Leagues Cup games, and more.

Injuries mounting for both clubs

Obviously, with a ton of games comes injuries, and this matchup sure has its question marks around it injury-wise. Let’s start with Miami where we know that players such as Corentin Jean, Franco Negri, and Ian Fray are all officially out. There are three more players that are questionable: Gregore, Jordi Alba, and, of course, Lionel Messi. All three of those players have nagging injuries, especially Alba and Messi, who left their last game for Miami early. Concerns are swirling around the fandom of Miami if the likes of Lionel Messi can’t take on Houston in this final.

Houston has their own injury concerns, even though the injury list isn’t as long as Miami’s. Houston will have two players miss this matchup in wingback Tate Schmitt and forward Achara. The biggest blow here is Tate Schmitt, who has been an effective wingback at the MLS level between Houston and Real Salt Lake.

Players to watch

Heading into the Open Cup final, the Houston Dynamo are sitting fourth in the Western Conference with 43 points. This season has been a nice surprise for Dynamo fans, as many people around the MLS world predicted them to finish way below the playoff line at the season's end. However, under new manager Ben Olsen, Houston seems to have found some new life.

We’ve seen a revitalized star in Mexican International, Héctor Herrera, this season, who has five goals and 16 assists across all competitions. Along with Herrera, Houston has thrived behind growing stars in MLS, such as Adalberto “Coco” Carrasquilla, Amine Bassi, and league veteran Corey Baird. The hosts, Inter Miami, are a bit behind Houston in the overall standings as they currently sit 14th in the Eastern Conference on 32 points. We know the names to pay attention to… Lionel Messi, Jordi Alba, and Sergio Busquets… again if we see Messi and Alba play.

Outside of their “Big 3”, Miami has had a few stars come through recently as well. In the attacking phase, Ecuadorian international striker Leonardo Campana has been in great form, scoring several goals and getting his season total up to 11 across all competitions. Finnish international winger Taylor has been playing extremely well in Miami’s last few games, stepping up for the lack of Messi. Robert Taylor has shown his ability to both create and “Finnish” (I just want you to know, reader, the nerd in me died laughing there) attempts.

One of the last players to mention for Inter Miami who has been on fire lately is Argentine youth international Facundo Farías. The 21-year-old attacking midfielder has been able to play a multitude of positions, seemingly being able to score from any of them. In a little over 500 minutes for Inter Miami, Farías has scored three goals and recorded two assists.

What are they playing for?

Now, what are Houston and Miami playing for this Wednesday? Well, first and foremost, both clubs have already won something, as both clubs have already qualified for the 2024 CONCACAF Champions Cup. Inter Miami got their Champions Cup spot via winning the 2023 League Cup, and Houston secured their spot for international competition next season by making it to the US Open Cup final. This is because they will be given the qualifying spot regardless of the outcome in the final since Miami has already qualified.

This trip to the Champions Cup (formerly the CONCACAF Champions League) will be the first for Inter Miami CF. For Houston, the trip in 2024 will be their 8th time playing in this prestigious tournament, their last coming in 2019, where they lost in the Quarter-finals to Mexican giants Tigres.

So what do these clubs have at stake here? Well, Miami could very well turn 2023 in a major way. Prior to this summer, Inter Miami was arguably the worst team in Major League Soccer and looked like a mess of a club. Then, with some changes in coaching as well as some massive signings, Miami has been able to put themselves in a position to win their second trophy and potentially make the MLS Cup Playoffs. Winning this would add another trophy to the club’s cabinet, to their season, and add confidence as they push for a playoff berth.

For Houston, a U.S. Open Cup title could be the crowning achievement of a shocking season for the club. As I mentioned before, nobody had them in this spot before the 2023 season kicked off. Now Houston is playing as one of the top teams in the Western Conference and 90 minutes away from raising the fourth trophy in their club’s history.

What people at the clubs are saying

We know what is at stake, but let’s see some comments from players who will be featured in this game and the mindset of the clubs:

Inter Miami CF goalkeeper Drake Callender sat down with Jonah Fontella of U.S. Soccer to discuss plenty about Miami and Lionel Messi, but this quote about the club’s mentality after winning Leagues Cup and playing for the U.S. Open Cup title is interesting to me:

“We’ve had a little bit of everything. We started the season with two wins against great teams in our conference and then we didn’t take the best route forward. Losing games by one goal, not scoring, not getting results. Conceding too many goals. I think that kind of started a fire in everyone’s bellies because we felt like we knew we were better than the results that we were getting. You have a team that’s extremely hungry and wants to prove something in a sink-or-swim situation – and you add in some of the best competitors in the world like we did in the summer. I felt like that was a potion for something great.”

The entire interview was great, but the comment of “I felt like that was a potion for something great.” really just stood out to me as one that accurately depicts where Inter Miami stands.

Now, this isn’t just another Inter Miami article, Houston Dynamo has a real shot at winning this game and this competition. A lot of thanks for that has to go to the players and coaches, but the turnaround of this club’s history has to be given thanks to owner Ted Segal, who took over majority ownership of the club back in the summer of 2021. Charles Boehm of sat down with Segal to chat about his time as owner, this season for Houston, and this cup final:

“A spotlight to be put on our club and the progress that we've made and the talent that we have, competing against arguably right now the league's very best, and certainly in a player like Messi and down the line, Busquets and Alba, some of the world's very best.”

Houston and Segal are aware of the magnitude of this game, this matchup, and what all of this could mean. To me, Houston seems to be the one playing with less pressure, as they are just happy to be there. They want to win but don’t feel the same pressure that I think right now the front office, coaches, and players of Inter Miami are feeling right now.