Miami FC earned the club’s historic first Lamar Hunt US Open Cup win with a 3-2 victory over the South Florida Surf at the University of Miami’s Cobb Stadium. The game, played in blustery conditions with intermittent rain, had a bit of everything: strong attacking play, hard-nosed defense, heroic goalkeeping and tactical nous.
Miami FC’s manager, Alessandro Nesta, who won a World Cup playing for Italy, was happy to advance in the Open Cup but less than pleased with his club’s performance.
“It is natural in life to take some things less seriously than others,” Nesta said after the match. “But this is an important competition to our club. I respect the Cup and told the players they need to be better and have the right mentality for 90 minutes. You have to praise the other team. In truth they played harder than we did, so I’m pleased that we won the game but our players can do better.”
Early in the game, the hosts created plenty of chances, building play beautifully down the left flank through Johnny Steele and the off-ball movement of Jaime Chavez and Kwadwo Poku. Miami’s best chance came through Steele and Poku, the latter starting a late run and latching onto a Steele cross in the penalty area only to see the ball glide inches past the near post. Still, it looked very much like Miami FC would strike first, as they piled pressure on the Surf back four.
The game changed in the 20th minute, however, as South Florida midfielder Manny Gonzalez, who reached the quarterfinals of the Open Cup in 2016 with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, won a tackle in midfield and played a quick ball down the left to Darwin Espinal. The Honduran, who represented his country in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games where he helped Los Catrachos finish fourth, rocketed a shot off his right foot past an outstretched Daniel Vega at the far post, giving South Florida a stunning 1-0 lead.
Miami FC had a tremendous chance to level in the 30th, winning a set piece in the right channel after a Jeff Michaud foul. The ensuing set piece service fooled Surf goalkeeper Andres Ruiz, who was caught in no-man’s land and beat to the ball by Mason Trafford. Trafford popped his clean header over the bar, however, and the Surf avoided the danger. Ruiz was forced into a hard and low save on Chavez in the 40th minute as well, but the Surf centerback pair, featuring Chicago Fire veteran Yann Mvita and Haitian international and Copa America veteran Jean-Marc Alexandre, did well to usher Miami FC runners into difficult angles. In many ways, the Surf’s tough spine in the opening half paid homage to the way upsets of years past have occurred, with good defense and opportunistic counterattacking soccer.
Nesta wasted no time making changes after an opening half where his side outshot the Surf 11-2 but still trailed. Dylan Mares replaced Jonny Steele on the left and Richie Ryan entered for Michel in the center of the pitch. The changes worked, with Ryan winning the ball in the middle of the pitch, shuttling it wide and Miami FC leveling the game in the 48th minute as Kwadwo Poku headed home a Blake Smith cross.
“I saw something to fix and you can’t always wait,” Nesta said of his two halftime substitutions. “We needed to change two players right away to win the game.”
Miami nearly took the lead in minute 55 but were repelled twice by Ruiz, who first denied Poku from ten yards and then hustled to deny a late-running Chavez on the rebound at the post. It was a tremendous sequence for the Surf keeper, who had looked a bit uncomfortable early in the evening dealing with the windy conditions, but recovered to make ten saves.
There was nothing Ruiz could do five minutes later, however.
Dylan Mares, another one of the Nesta halftime changes, made a darting run down the right flank and crossed to a free-running Poku. Andrew Booth of the Surf was in great position to defend, but he mistimed the clearance and pushed the ball into his own net, giving Miami a 2-1 lead on the hour mark.
Miami FC seemed content to keep the ball and kill off the game in the final half hour, but found themselves level in the 76th minute, when the Surf’s Jeff Michaud outraced defender Hunter Freeman to a long ball and then beat Vega from an impossible anger to level the game at two. The howler from Vega forced Nesta, who played many years with the great Italian keeper Gigi Buffon, to throw a clipboard and water bottle.
Nesta’s anger was short-lived, however, as Miami FC regained the lead three minutes later with a goal from Jaime Chavez, again assisted by Blake Smith.
Refusing to give up, Ethan Decker had a great chance to tie the game for South Florida down the left flank in the 88th minute, but Vega got just enough on the shot to allow Jonathan Borrajo to clear for Miami, who held the Surf at bay in the waning minutes to seal a hard-fought win.
Miami FC’s victory sets up a meeting in Coral Gables in two weeks against the in-state Tampa Bay Rowdies, who left the NASL for the USL this season.