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Analysing Lionel Messi’s opponents – how Houston could ruin his cup final

Analysing Lionel Messi’s opponents – The US Open Cup Final is Inter Miami’s second chance at silverware since Ballon d’Or favourite Messi joined the South Florida club. But standing in their way are Houston Dynamo, winners in 2018 and on a good run of form in the league. The Texan team have kept 12 clean sheets this season, which is more than any other MLS side.

Houston’s rise under Ben Olsen

The Dynamo turned to former DC United coach Ben Olsen at the end of 2022, following a disappointing season that saw the Texas-based team miss out on the Playoffs. This year the turnaround has been notable. At the time of writing El Naranja are 4th in the Western Conference and in only their second final.

Coach Olsen has also coached a winning side in the US Open Cup before, taking DC United to the top prize in 2013.

Ben Olsen Houston Dynamo
Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports/Sipa USA – Photo by Icon sport

Olsen also boasts a strong record against Tata Martino. The two tacticians have met six times, with the American coming out on top on four occasions. Interestingly, there has never been a draw between the two, the average goals per game has been 3.33.

The last meeting was in 2018, with that clash producing a 3-1 victory for Olsen’s DC United against Martino’s Atlanta United. Wayne Rooney was on target for the home team and provided both assists for the other goals.

Dynamo’s disciplined defence

One of the features has been the reorganisation and tactical discipline of the Dynamo backline. Only two teams in the Conference have a better defensive record than Houston. They regularly line up with a back four but the team approach has had slight adaptations throughout the year. Sometimes it is a more attack-minded 4-3-3 and or sometimes they play with a low block and the team lines up more as a 4-2-3-1.

“Every game is different in how we go about it, depending on the opponent. Do we want to focus more on the opponent? Or do we want to focus more on ourselves and how we can manipulate the opponent?” said Olsen earlier this year, when speaking to The Athletic.

In terms of personnel at the back, the favoured central defensive partnership has been Erik Sviatchenko alongside Brazilian youngster Micael (pictured below). Between the sticks is 37-year-old veteran Steve Clark, who is having an outstanding season.

ICONSPORT sipausa 47435660
Orlando, Florida, USA, July 21, 2023, Houston Dynamo defender Micael Silva (orange kit) kicks the ball out in defence in the first half at Exploria Stadium. (Photo by Marty Jean-Louis/Sipa USA) – Photo by Icon sport

How Houston plans to stop Messi

In the US Open Cup Final on Wednesday they must be thinking about one opponent in particular, the seven-time Ballon D’Or winner Lionel Messi. So with his tally of 31 goals in 42 finals with club sides showing just what an appetite he has for the ‘all or nothing’ game, just what is the plan to stop him?

Olsen is keeping his cards close to his chest; “If I had the right plan to stop him, I wouldn’t give it to you.” the 46-year-old said to ESPN reporters on Monday.

The likelihood is that the defence will stay deep to avoid Inter Miami’s runners getting in behind, but that could leave more space for Messi if he drops deep. This leads us to believe the key battle won’t be between the World Cup Winner and the back four, but with the defensive midfielders.

Lionel Messi's opponents Houston are a disciplined outfit.
Lionel Messi’s opponents Houston are a disciplined outfit. – Credit: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports/Sipa USA – Photo by Icon sport

Lionel Messi’s opponents – Héctor Herrera a key player

Houston’s captain Héctor Herrera is going to have a big job on his hands to try and stop Messi finding the ball between the lines. The Mexican international took time to adapt to his new side after arriving from Atlético Madrid in 2022, but this season he has been in phenomenal form.

His physicality and ability to anticipate will be crucial in eating up any space where Inter Miami hope to feed the ball into Messi. However, Herrera has also shown his box-to-box qualities this season, an intricate passer in the final third. He has even scored five goals this year, including the opener in the semifinal win over Real Salt Lake.

In conclusion, stopping Messi has proved to be almost impossible since he touched down in the USA, but the Dynamo will provide one of his toughest tests yet. If Olsen’s secret plan plays out to perfection, and Héctor Herrera brings the heat…maybe Houston will spoil Miami’s party.

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