The million-dollar question heading into Wednesday’s US Open Cup final was whether Lionel Messi would play from the start or the bench.
In the end, he did neither. And Houston Dynamo pounced to bring Inter Miami crashing back down to earth in their own backyard.
If this was meant to serve as a Miami parade at their home DRV PNK Stadium, news of Messi’s absence from the 18-man roster rained on it harder than the torrential downpour which had engulfed Fort Lauderdale earlier in the day.
Thousands of supporters from across the globe made the trip in anticipation of the all-time great work inghis magic on one of the biggest stages in US soccer. France and Real Madrid legend Zinedine Zidane, a guest of former teammate and Miami co-owner David Beckham this evening, was surely one of them.
But Messi had lost his race against time to be fit for this final. And without their superstar player at the helm, Miami were devoid of virtually all inspiration in a demoralizing first half.
After a sloppy and slippery opening 10 minutes, which at times proved difficult to watch in wet conditions, Houston slowly began to exert their dominance on proceedings against a Miami side which almost looked shellshocked by the loss of their main man.
Houston Dynamo celebrate their brillaint US Open final victory against Inter Miami
Dynamo spoiled Miami’s party in the US Open Cup final on Wednesday night
Lionel Messi was not involved in the final after failing to recover from a muscle problem in time
France and Real Madrid legend Zinedine Zidane may well have rocked up to watch Messi
Eventually it was the superb Nelson Quinones who carved out the first decent opening of the night, latching onto a pass from Andre Bassi and pulling the trigger just inside the area, only to be denied by a superb sliding block from Kamal Miller.
Over the next five minutes the 21-year-old would continue to terrorize DeAndre Yedlin down Houston’s left flank, leaving the Miami right-back for dead in the 18th minute before drilling the ball across to Corey Baird, whose header sailed over the crossbar.
Miami simply could not get going on their big night at DRV PNK Stadium. In the opening 20 minutes, they failed to register a single shot.
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 swift counter-attack upfield first saw Baird pick out Artur on the edge of the box. The Brazilian midfielder simply shifted the ball over to Dorsey in acres 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.
Having sleepwalked throughout the opening half-hour, Houston’s opener failed to spark Miami into life as they continued to squander possession cheaply. The visitors were well in their groove by this point, with the likes of Quinones, Bassi and Adalberto Carrasquilla combining with a free-flowing swagger throughout.
Miami already had a mountain to climb at 1-0 without the superhuman powers of Messi to save them from the bench. Yet that mountain became all the more towering when Yedlin felled Quinones inside the box in the 32nd minute.
The former Premier League defender was the wrong side of Houston’s danger man as he was released in the box, meaning there was little hesitation from the referee when the desperate challenge went in and he fell to ground.
Griffin Dorsey fired Houston ahead with a superb finish from a tight angle at DRV PNK Stadium
Andre Bassithen doubled the visitors’ lead from the penalty spot to put them in full control
Messi watched on from the stands as his team chased shadows in the opening 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, cooly sticking his effort down the middle to double Houston’s lead.
Ben Olsen’s side were in complete control of this final and fully deserving of the two-goal lead which stunned the home crowd into silence. Messi, watching on from the stands, must have been doing so through his fingers.
It was only 10 minutes after Houston’s second when Miami finally showed signs of life. Robert Taylor advanced down the right-hand side and floated the ball into the box to Leonardo Campana, who brought it down with his back to goal and teed up Benjamin Cremaschi.
Though almost to sum up their first-half showing, the 18-year-old’s shot flew over the bar and the hosts’ first decent chance of the night went begging.
Tata Martino had work to do during the half-time interval. Up until the final few minutes his side were as flat as a pancake, bamboozled by the brilliance of Quinones and Co.
Desperate to find a solution, the Inter boss hooked off Taylor and Diego Gomez and opted for Josef Martinez and Dixon Arroyo from the bench.
His changes almost proved a masterstroke early in the second half, with Martinez at the heart of two glorious openings which ramped up the noise inside this stadium.
The Venezuelan striker came agonisingly close in the 56th minute with a well-timed header from Facundo Farías’ free-kick, before falling victim to the slippery surface when racing towards goal in a one-on-one situation minutes later.
Miami were second best for large parts of the game as they struggled in wet conditions
The superb Nelson Quinones (left) caused DeAndre Yedlin problems all night long
Josef Martinez pulled one back in stoppage time but it was too little too late for Miami
Shortly after, another quick move upfield worked its way to Cremaschi just behind the penalty spot, but his effort from close range was blocked as Houston’s backline reacted quickly to the danger.
Miami certainly huffed and puffed after the interval as the likes of Martinez, Campana and Farias stepped things up a gear. Though for 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 remaining. The Colombian finished another exquisite Houston move by looping the ball into the top-right corner, only for VAR to intervene and deem that he was in an offside position.
Meanwhile, Martino continued to search for answers from the sidelines, rolling the dice by bringing on American midfielder David Ruiz for Yedlin and later Argentine striker Nicolás Marcelo Stefanelli for Cremaschi.
Just as it seemed their best chances had passed them by, Martinez raised the roof when he latched onto a through ball into the box in stoppage time and bundled home past Tarbell. All of a sudden, a home crowd praying for another fairytale evening were dreaming of a last-gasp comeback.
Yet when all things were said and done, it was too little too late for Miami on their big night in Fort Lauderdale as the final whistle sounded to confirm Houston as US Open Cup winners.