Two of FC Cincinnati's star players, midfielder and captain Luciano Acosta and midfielder Álvaro Barreal, share a hometown. Both were born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and while they found their way to FCC and MLS in different ways, the partnership the pair share is obvious.
On the field, the all-star duo is a dynamic offensive force whose teamwork generates abundant goal opportunities with seeming ease, frequently working together as if telepathically linked. Off the field, the pair are part of a tight-knit group that has worked FC Cincinnati to the top of the table in MLS.
Acosta has played his way into the Landon Donovan MLS MVP conversation this season, scoring 13 goals and 12 assists in 25 starts across all competitions this season. Barreal has broken out as one of the best young players in the league and earned himself a starting spot in the 2023 MLS All-Star game just one year after being converted to a left-back.
Three and a half hours northwest of Buenos Aires, up the Paraná River on the border of Argentina and Uruguay, is the hometown of international soccer star and the newest addition to MLS, Lionel Messi. His arrival in America to play for Inter Miami CF has taken the soccer world by storm.
Now that storm comes to Cincinnati and TQL Stadium – a fortress that has seen FC Cincinnati earn an undefeated record at home – for the semifinal of the 2023 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup on August 23. It’s a knockout game against one of the hottest teams in the league and one of the best players in the world.
Inter Miami CF has been revitalized by the arrival of Messi. Entering the inaugural Leagues Cup, Inter Miami CF sat at the bottom of the MLS table, having earned just 18 points in 22 matches. Still, since the arrival of their new #10, The Herons are undefeated and have played their way into the Leagues Cup semifinal.
"It's not just another game," Acosta said of the match. "This is a special game. It's a semifinal, it's against Messi. But overall it's against Inter Miami, who are in really good form right now."
FC Cincinnati’s Argentine natives are preparing to meet the moment in a balanced, but excited way.
Messi is an icon who is the most capped player in the history of the Argentine national team as well as its leading scorer, helping earn his country its third World Cup title last December. His achievements are admired by any Argentine soccer player or fan. The chance to play with or against him is an opportunity sought after by many.
But personal and club glory is also on the line for Acosta and Barreal.
"It's a dream, it's a great opportunity," Barreal said of the chance to compete for a trophy. "The motivation is higher, not just because it's Messi, but because it's a semifinal and we're committed to advancing. We want to win. We want to win and get to the final."
"For us, the mentality is it's never just another game," Acosta added. "We try to play every game like it's a final."
Both FC Cincinnati players highly regard their compatriot as a player and a person. Acosta shared some time with Messi on the field after Argentina won the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar, snapping a picture with then Paris Saint-Germain star who scored twice in the winning effort. Barreal describes Messi as his childhood idol and relishes the opportunity to play against him.
But both recognize the challenge that Messi brings to a match and want to prepare accordingly.
"It's an opportunity that I get to play against him, but we're prepared," Barreal said. "I grew up watching him … so I know how (great) he can be."
"To play against him, it's gonna be very hard," Acosta added. "He plays on another level … you just have to be prepared for the big moments. You have to prepare as a team, not just to play as one."
FC Cincinnati's return to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinals is a historic moment. It harkens back to 2017, when The Orange and Blue defeated a different Miami squad (Miami FC of the NASL) in the quarterfinals.
Six years later, a chance at a trophy again rests between FCC and a Miami soccer club. This time instead of being played between two lower division sides, the eyes of the world will be on TQL Stadium as Luciano Acosta and Álvaro Barreal welcome their legendary countryman, Lionel Messi, to The Queen City.
Barreal puts it most simply, "It's gonna be a very special game. We're prepared for that."