FORT LAUDERDALE -- While the additions of Lionel Messi, Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba raised Inter Miami's ceiling of expectations, it was the young players who could not match the lofty standards and showed that there is a long way to go after losing the U.S. Open Cup final to the Houston Dynamo on Wednesday, 2-1.
Without Messi and Alba due to fatigue, Tata Martino turned to the young players on the team with five younger than 25 starting the Open Cup final. Noah Allen, Benjamin Cremaschi, Diego Gomez, Facundo Farias and Leonardo Campana are all excellent players in their own right but given the keys to the attack against an experienced Dynamo midfield, they've shown where there must be dramatic improvements.
"He elevates everyone, and I saw a little bit when Wayne Rooney came to D.C. United, and when he was on the field, it just was different. You're going to battle with a legend, a guy that you can believe in and that has just won everything," Dynamo head coach Ben Olsen said when asked what was different facing the Herons without Messi. "I don't think that was necessarily the case. I don't think there was any lack of energy or fight from them. I think it was just, you know, they were missing their best player."
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Almost from the first kick, Miami's nerves showed as the Herons struggled to break Houston's press due to indecisive passing and holding the ball too long. Failing to convert attacks, it was only Kamal Miller and Drake Callender who held off the Dynamo tide until the 24th minute when Griffin Dorsey found the breakthrough following a turnover from Farias. That ended up being the story of the entire first half as Miami only took one shot to Houston's 15, trailing 2-0 at the break.
The Herons got into good areas but weren't able to make their chances count. Miller had to clean up mistakes from Allen being left out of position and Diego Gomez didn't offer much in the center of the park before Miami improved after bringing in Dixon Arroyo to be more of a defensive shield after the half. Even Campana, who has had moments of brilliance during the season, only took two shots during the match, having as many dispossessions as shots on target.
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Part of the blame can rest on Martino starting with a 4-3-3 to attack Houston that just didn't work but some of it also comes down to these being young players who need the experience under their belt. Farias didn't even get on the pitch during the Leagues Cup triumph and the other players didn't have roles as large as the ones that they took on Wednesday night.
There was an improvement in the second half after the shift to a more familiar back three with Tomas Aviles offering cover for the lack of pace in defense and Arroyo cleaning up mistakes but Josef Martinez, Farias and Campana struggled with their finishing until finally getting a consolation goal in stoppage time. The improvement will be one of the few positives for Martino, but matches like this one offer growth opportunities to teams as young as Miami.
When Messi's on the pitch, things are easy. You look to him, run, get into space and the ball will find you. But when he's not, individual creativity and care with the ball is much more important. Without Messi, the Herons are now 0-2-1 with six goals scored and eight goals allowed versus playoff teams in all competitions. Facing non-playoff teams, Miami are 2-0-0 with seven goals scored and two allowed. It's a clear picture -- if Miami want to make the MLS Cup Playoffs and succeed if they get there, they'll have to improve their play without Messi on the pitch.
"It was not prudent for him to play. Too risky, even for a few minutes. He will play in league games going forward, but will go game by game based on what the medical team tells us," Martino said about Messi's status for the remainder of the season.
While the Argentine missed the squad completely for this cup final, prior to the match, Martino stated that he wouldn't have risked Messi if it was a regular season game. With so many unknowns surrounding Messi's injury status, this likely won't be the final time this season that the Herons have to take the pitch without him, and, to truly contend, the performances will have to be much better than what they showed in this one.