FC Cincinnati has been to the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup semifinals before. It was a nexus point in the club’s history that eventually pushed the team to its present membership in Major League Soccer.
But the members of that magical run, a team that overcame the odds in 2017, are effectively gone from the roster. All the experience – with the emotions and nerves that came with the 3-2 semifinal loss to New York Red Bulls in 2017 – now lives on with the fans and the club’s staff.
That said, the individuals that will go to battle with Lionel Messi and Inter Miami CF on Wednesday night at TQL Stadium have their own history, memories and experiences to pull from when looking for success in the semifinal match.
FC Cincinnati striker Brandon Vazquez and goalkeeper Alec Kann were part of the Atlanta United FC team in 2019 that won the U.S. Open Cup. In his time before FC Cincinnati, Nick Hagglund won a Voyageurs Cup as Canadian Champions with Toronto FC in 2016 and 2017, starting the semifinal and final in 2016. Matt Miazga won the KNVB Cup in 2017 with Eredivisie side Vitesse, the Netherlands equivalent of the Open Cup.
Head coach Pat Noonan also has experience in winning the U.S. Open Cup, doing so three times in his playing career, once with New England Revolution in 2007 and in back-to-back seasons with Seattle Sounders FC in 2010 and 2011.
“We have a couple of young guys in the team, so hopefully I can use my experience and lead by example and through communication,” Miazga said after training Tuesday at Mercy Health Training Center, the final team training ahead of the match. “It’s all going to come down to being a group and sticking together.
“I think that I can lean on my experience in these situations. I’ve won trophies in the past. I’ve played in the semifinals that I’ve won and I’ve played in the semifinals and lost. So I’ve been around the block and been through these moments.”
The Wednesday night match is a powder keg of exciting but potentially overwhelming opportunities or moments for FC Cincinnati. In addition to being just two wins away from winning the club’s first trophy since joining MLS, the team is also playing seven-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi. In itself, that is more than enough additional motivation to fight and win, but also the chance to be the first to defeat Messi and Inter Miami CF and prove yourself and your club to the eyes of the world.
“We want to be the first to (beat Messi),” Hagglund said. “Our goal at the end of the day is to move on in this tournament, and that takes going through him.
“I’ve played against a lot of great players that have come through MLS. Obviously Messi feels a bit more special, but when you’re on the field, it’s time to get the job done.”
Staying consistent, even-keeled, and focused on their own game is also the advice that Santiago Arias said was key to success. Arias is the only player to have played the Argentine star in club play, doing so three times from 2018 to 2020 while Arias was a member of Atlético Madrid in Spain’s LaLiga. In his three matches against Barcelona, Atlético Madrid earned two draws and a loss.
“We obviously know the quality that he has, but what’s important is we focus on ourselves,” Arias said. “We’re gonna focus on defending well, on playing our game. We have a lot of respect for our opponent, but they need to respect us as well.
“It’s a semifinal. You might only play one of these in your life. So you have to go out and enjoy it and understand how big that game is. So we know to go out there and play our game. It’s a big game for us, so we’re going out to win.”
The gravity that a semifinal match brings requires extra attention to detail regardless of who wears the captain’s armband for the opposing team. But it also calls for special consideration and remembrance of the moments that players find themselves in.
“Enjoy the moment, be excited about what’s in front of you, but also know it’s one play at a time,” Hagglund said of the advice he gives to teammates who have not been in situations like these before. “And there has to be belief and trust in the group no matter what the script of the game is. Up one, down one, whatever, that in the 90 minutes, you believe that you’re going to come out on top.”