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U.S. Open Cup final preview: How Houston are preparing for Messi, mental battle, more

Ahead of Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup final against Inter Miami and global superstar Lionel Messi, Houston Dynamo head coach Ben Olsen, understandably, wants to keep his cards close to his chest.

“If I had the right plan to stop him [Messi], I wouldn’t give it to you,” said Olsen bluntly in a conversation with ESPN late last week. “I don’t want to get into that too much.”

Fair play to the coach who has the unenviable task of trying to halt the seven-time Ballon d’Or award winner. Arguably the greatest of all time in the sport, 36-year-old Messi has quickly silenced the notion of a potential semi-retirement after joining MLS earlier this summer. Despite his age and also basking in the limelight of a dream World Cup victory with Argentina last winter, Messi has maintained his awe-inspiring momentum from Qatar 2022 by becoming a potent and dynamic attacking wrecking ball for Miami.

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Supported by fellow summer additions like Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, as well as other key figures, the forward has already collected 11 goals and eight assists in 12 games in all competitions. Within that short time frame, he’s also: Revived the once last-placed team in the Eastern Conference table through a Leagues Cup title, held an undefeated run in games that he’s featured in, and also earned a chance to claim yet another trophy this Wednesday in the U.S. Open Cup.

But what about the Dynamo?

Living through a more under-the-radar rejuvenation of their own, Houston will undoubtedly be the underdogs when they visit Messi and Co. in Florida this week. They don’t have the same star power or worldwide attention of their opponents, but they’ll still have a fighting chance to steal the spotlight and a possible trophy away from Miami’s No. 10.

Ahead of the U.S. Open Cup final, here’s what Olsen and a couple of Houston’s players had to say about preparing for the championship and about trying to stop La Pulga.

Houston’s ‘reboot’ in a promising 2023

Before diving into Messi, let’s first quickly revisit how exactly the Dynamo got here to begin with — especially when you consider how much of a mess they were 12 months ago. Back in late 2022, Houston were more known for their flaws rather than their successes.

After a drop to last in the Western Conference table in September of last year, the Dynamo fired head coach Paulo Nagamura before he was able to complete a first full season with the club. Shortly afterwards, and with slim postseason chances, they then failed to qualify for the MLS Cup playoffs for a fifth year in a row.

Needing a much-needed rebuild, Olsen, a former D.C. United coach that won the 2013 U.S. Open Cup, was then brought in as Houston coach in November of 2022. Early on in his tenure, he set out three goals: To make his players fitter, to make it clear how they should play, and to change the mentality and culture of the roster that had previous baggage.

“This is a group effort and this is hopefully just the beginning. We are far from a finished product, and in so many ways, it’s a kind of restarting of the organization on the sporting side. There’s a lot of movement within the front office as well,” said Olsen, who also noted the groundwork built by general manager Pat Onstad and first-ever technical director Asher Mendelsohn. “It’s in some ways a reboot,” Olsen added.

Following a long list of reinforcements and roster changes made under Olsen and through the investment of majority owner Ted Segal, Houston began to gain steam. The defense became more reliable and rigid, team captain and Mexican international Héctor Herrera soon began to play at the level of a league MVP candidate, and the club’s home ground at Shell Energy Stadium then became a fortress with an ongoing 10W-3D-2L record in league play.

Despite a busy schedule that was placed on them in 2023, Houston’s heavily revamped roster benefitted from this as they made progress in not only the regular season, but also the U.S. Open Cup. “With a lot of games you use a lot of players and that’s a good thing,” said Olsen. “It creates a better culture. Everyone’s helping the season, rather than just sitting on the sidelines.”

Physically fit, defensively solid, and eager to dish the ball through their midfield and particularly through Herrera, the team sitting at a playoff-worthy spot at fourth in MLS’ Western Conference now find themselves prepping for the U.S. Open Cup final. And, prepping for their biggest challenge yet in their rebuild.



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Aiming, or attempting, to stop Messi

“You can lose the game, within a second,” said Houston defender Erik Sviatchenko about defending Messi. “He can take advantage of the slightest kind of mistake or the slightest unawareness in the team.”

Sviatchenko, a Ukrainian-born Danish player that arrived to the Dynamo earlier this year, knows plenty about the prospect of trying to impede a player like Messi. In 2016, he faced off against the Argentine twice in UEFA Champions League group stage matches between Celtic (his former club) and Barcelona.

“I wouldn’t say that I had the best experience,” said the defender with a laugh. “The first game we played against Messi and Barcelona, with Celtic, we lost 7-0.” The second game, in which he earned a yellow card for fouling the Argentine forward, was lost 2-0. With that experience in hand, he’s taken internal lessons.

“We need to be very compact and we really need to be ready,” stated Sviatchenko about how to deal with Messi on Wednesday. “If someone loses their marker or loses a duel, then the next guy will be there, to help each other. It’s a mindset more than it is a way of defending.”

Remaining compact and organized will be key for Houston as they attempt to stop Messi and others from creating dangerous chances, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee that they’ll simply sit back and let others dictate the game.

“One important thing for us is to keep the ball and to be clean on the ball,” added Artur, a midfielder and fellow new addition to the 2023 season for Houston. “Because for me, it’s the best way to defend, it’s when you don’t need to defend. So we need to keep the ball well, to move the ball and maybe make them defend a little bit.”

Another option is to shut down Messi higher up the field. Considering that the Dynamo are averaging 12.8 fouls and 2.56 yellow cards per MLS game, this may not be out of the question.

“If you can keep him away from goal for as long as the game goes on, because Messi sometimes in the role he has now, he also drifts away from goal to get the ball,” said Sviatchenko when asked about a potential source of weakness for the Miami player. “But of course it won’t be possible for 90 minutes. He will pop up, he will pop up in spaces where he’ll get himself in dangerous spots, either to assist or to have a hit on goal. It’s very difficult to see where the weaknesses are,” added Sviatchenko.

Olsen, in his own way, also reaffirmed the idea that Messi will be a highly unique complication to face. “Let me ask the 5,000 coaches that have tried before to stop him that have not been able to, guys with better credentials than me,” remarked Olsen.

The right ‘mentality’ but pressure on Miami

What will make things especially difficult for Houston is that Messi won’t be alone. While it’s easy to focus on other elite figures such as Busquets and Alba, Miami have been able to get additional attacking impact from names like Leonardo Campana, Robert Taylor and Facundo Farías, among a handful of others.

“Of course you want to condense space and limit him [Messi] and do all the things that everybody tries to do with all great No. 10s, but really we’ll dissect them as a group and we’ll do what we do with all teams,” said Olsen about preparation. “What we need to focus on, where we need to maybe tweak some of our tactics, [is] to prevent their strengths and also figure out how to exploit their weaknesses. That’s all we’re doing for each team and there won’t be any different preparation.”

Sviatchenko agreed with this concept of seeing it as a more of a task against a group and not an individual. “I think we just need to take it as a great opportunity as a team, as a player, to face not only a player [like Messi], but a team that has great individuals in [it], and it’s a good team,” said the Houston defender.

The idea of a necessary level-headed state of mind in a high-profile game like Wednesday’s was also brought up by Sviatchenko.

“The mentality is something that is the most important when you go into these decisive games that are finals. We have a group that has been in finals, that have won finals. I think we need to take on that kind of experience and to share that experience,” said the former Celtic player.

“Sometimes it’s difficult to share it verbally, but it’s more easy to share when you’re out in the field…to be concentrated, to be focused on every single detail of the game and it’s only 90 minutes, you know, and we are able to concentrate ourselves for 90 minutes.”

Olsen, metaphorical cards held close to his chest, did eventually give in a little when the topic of the team’s messaging and mentality was brought up. He wasn’t willing to share any details and reinforced that he didn’t “really want to get into that,” but he did briefly shed some light on the awareness on how others see Houston and Miami as they head into the final.

“Certainly, the pressure will be on them [Miami]. They’re at home, they’ll be the favorites,” said Olsen. “We’re used to that, we kind of live in that space anyway, so nothing will change as far as where the expectations are from outside Houston and our locker room.”

“We’re fine with that,” said Olsen.

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