The million dollar question was whether Lionel Messi would play from the starting line-up or from the bench. In the end, Inter Miami’s superman did neither as Houston Dynamo proved their kryptonite in the US Open Cup final.
If this was meant to be a Miami parade at their home stadium DRV PNK Stadium, the news of Messi’s absence from the 18-man squad rained down harder than the torrential downpour that engulfed Fort Lauderdale earlier in the day.
Thousands of supporters had come to this stadium hoping to see Argentina’s World Cup-winning captain work his magic on one of the biggest stages in American football. France and Real Madrid legend Zinedine Zidane, who was in the house for the showpiece tonight, was clearly one of them.
But Messi, struggling with muscle pain, had lost his race against time to be fit for this final. And without their superstar player at the helm, Miami was bereft of virtually all inspiration in a demoralizing first half.
After a sloppy and slippery first ten minutes, which at times proved difficult to watch in wet conditions, Houston slowly began to exert their dominance in the game against a Miami side who looked almost shell-shocked by the loss of their main man.
Houston Dynamo spoiled Inter Miami’s party in the US Open Cup final on Wednesday evening
Lionel Messi was not involved in the final after failing to recover in time from a muscle problem
France and Real Madrid legend Zinedine Zidane may be startled to watch Messi
Ultimately it was the excellent Nelson Quinones who secured the first decent opening of the evening, latching onto an Andre Bassi pass and pulling the trigger just inside the area, only to be denied by an excellent sliding block from Kamal Miller .
Over the next five minutes, 21-year-old DeAndre Yedlin would continue to terrorize Houston’s left flank, leaving the Miami right-back for dead in the 18th minute before driving the ball to Corey Baird, whose header sailed over the crossbar.
Miami simply couldn’t get going on their big night at DRV PNK Stadium. They failed to register a single shot in the first twenty minutes.
In the 24th minute, just moments after Callender made an incredible double save to keep them out, Houston finally got what they deserved when Griffin Dorsey fired home the first goal of the final.
A quick counter-attack upfield saw Baird pick out Artur on the edge of the penalty area. The Brazilian midfielder simply passed the ball to Dorsey in an area with plenty of space, and despite the tight angle, his fierce shot flew past Callender’s near post and into the back of the net for only his second goal of the season. What a time to get it.
After sleepwalking for the entire opening half hour, Houston’s opener failed to spark Miami into life as they continued to squander possession cheaply. The visitors were well into their rhythm at this point, with the likes of Quinones, Bassi and Adalberto Carrasquilla combining with a free-flowing swagger.
Miami already had a mountain to climb at 1-0 without the superhuman powers of Messi being able to save them from the bench. Yet that mountain became all the taller when Yedlin brought down Quinones in the penalty area in the 32nd minute.
The former Premier League defender was on the wrong side of Houston’s danger man when he was released into the penalty area, meaning there was little hesitation from the referee as the desperate challenge came in and he fell to the ground.
Griffin Dorsey fired Houston ahead with an excellent finish from a tight angle at DRV PNK Stadium
Andre Bassithen doubled the visitors’ lead from the penalty spot, putting them in full control
Messi watched from the stands as his team chased shadows in the first 45 minutes
As a boisterous sea of pink shirts did their best to distract him, Bassi kept his composure and made no mistake from the spot as he coolly stabbed through the middle to double Houston’s lead.
Ben Olsen’s side were in complete control of this final and fully deserved the two-goal lead that silenced the home crowd. Messi, watching from the stands, must have done this through his fingers.
It was just 10 minutes into Houston’s second when Miami finally showed signs of life. Robert Taylor advanced down the right side and floated the ball into the penalty area to Leonardo Campana, who brought the ball with his back to goal and set up Benjamin Cremaschi.
Although it almost summed up their first-half performance, the 18-year-old’s shot flew over the crossbar and the home side’s first decent chance of the night went begging.
Tata Martino had work to do at halftime. Until the last few minutes, his side was as flat as a pancake, deceived by the brilliance of Quinones and Co.
Desperate for a solution, the Inter boss took off Taylor and Diego Gomez, opting for Josef Martinez and Dixon Arroyo from the bench.
His substitutions almost proved a masterstroke early in the second half, with Martinez at the heart of two glorious openings that increased the noise in this stadium.
The Venezuelan striker came agonizingly close in the 56th minute with a well-timed header from Facundo Farías’ free-kick, before falling victim to the slippery surface minutes later as he raced towards goal in a one-on-one situation.
Miami was second best for much of the game as they struggled in wet conditions
The outstanding Nelson Quinones (left) caused DeAndre Yedlin problems all night
Josef Martinez pulled one back in stoppage time, but it was too little too late for Miami
Shortly afterwards, another quick move up the pitch made its way to Cremaschi just behind the penalty spot, but his close-range effort was blocked as Houston’s backline reacted quickly to the danger.
Miami certainly huffed and puffed after the break as players like Martinez, Campana and Farias stepped up a gear. Despite all their efforts, Houston goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell barely had a save to make.
The visitors almost made them pay on the break in the 70th minute, with Carrasquilla’s lob towards the back post briefly worrying Callender before the ball went out of play.
Quinones then thought he had put the final nail in Miami’s coffin with 15 minutes to go. The Colombian rounded off another great move from Houston by slotting the ball into the top right corner, before VAR intervened and ruled him in an offside position.
Meanwhile, Martino continued to search for answers from the touchline, rolling the dice by bringing on American midfielder David Ruiz for Yedlin and later Argentinian striker Nicolás Marcelo Stefanelli for Cremaschi.
Just when it looked like their best chances had passed them by, Martinez raised the roof when he smashed a through ball into the penalty area in stoppage time and powered home past Tarbell. Suddenly a home crowd praying for another fairytale night dreamed of a final comeback.
But when all was said and done, it was too little too late for Miami on their big night in Fort Lauderdale as the final whistle blew to confirm Houston as the winner of the US Open Cup.