Miami FC broke a scoreless tie with two second half goals to defeat the visiting Tampa Bay Rowdies in the Third Round of the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup Wednesday night. The 2-0 win was the first in the competition for the hosts over the cross-state rival Rowdies and secures the young franchise their first date with a MLS side in the competition.
Miami FC will visit Orlando City SC in Fourth Round action on June 14.
For Miami FC midfielder Michael Lahoud, the victory was a statement about the quality of NASL and the talent on Miami FC.
“As someone who has played in two US Open Cup finals, I love this competition,” Lahoud said. “This tournament is about survive and advance. We beat a very good team, and made a statement for our league [NASL], that we’re better than one of the best teams in USL. We earned the right to show we can compete against MLS teams, and hopefully we continue this great run.”
Lahoud, who will represent Sierra Leone in their upcoming African Nations Cup qualifiers, credited his manager, Alessandro Nesta.
“Italians are never satisfied,” he said of the Azzurri great. “Fortunately, and unfortunately, we have a full staff of Italians, and our coach happens to be one of the greatest Italians to ever play the game, which is saying something. He keeps us humble with his demands, and he has a lot of demands, but he’s proud of us tonight” Lahoud said.
With the visitors playing very narrowly through the middle, chances were hard to come by early in the match. In fact, the Rowdies had the best chance of the opening 20 minutes, when following a turnover near midfield, former Chelsea FC star Joe Cole danced through the Miami FC defense and flicked a shot that Daniel Vega saved high.
Miami FC had a chance minutes later, with Lahoud dancing around defenders Luke Boden and Neil Collins and firing a rocket at the far post that was marvelously parried away by Akira Fitzgerald. It was the best chance either side would have in the opening frame.
Miami seized the initiative as the second half began, and nearly went ahead when Roberto Baggio Kcira made a menacing run down the left flank and crossed to an unmarked Poku, who had time to take a touch but shot one time, shanking the ball harmlessly wide.
Nesta credited his team’s patience and mentality for the break through on a night where space and chances were at a premium.
“The largest issue in Florida to play soccer is the heat,” said Nesta. “Finding energy is not easy. Patience is critical. You cannot force balls and you need to keep the ball. The heat and the rest make it harder to invest defensively.”
Lahoud agreed that his team had the right mentality to win a tough and physical game that included 22 Rowdies fouls.
“Nesta talks about moments that define character, what he calls “hot moments”, moments where you really find out what you are all about,” Lahoud said. “Tonight, it was a hot moment, and we were up for it. That’s what it takes to be a good team. A championship team.”
The breakthrough finally came in the 73rd minute, when for the second consecutive round, a Nesta substitution changed the game. Following a Rowdies turnover near midfield, substitute Dylan Mares was fouled in the area by Georgi Hristov. The referee pointed quickly to the spot, and Vincenzo Rennella buried the spot kick to give Miami FC a 1-0 lead.
Miami kept the pressure on after the opener, and added a second goal in the 83rd minute. Mares was involved again, making a powerful run down the left channel and crossing to Jaime Chavez, who was rewarded when Rowdies keeper Akira Fitzgerald mishandled his soft shot.
Miami FC is now unbeaten in eight games in all competition, building confidence that they, like the Fort Lauderdale Strikers of a year ago, can go to Orlando and collect a victory.
“I’m very happy. My first managerial position and we (advance) to play a team in Orlando with Kaka, Nocerino, beautiful players, beautiful new stadium” Nesta said.
Lahoud thinks Miami can win. “For a club like ours, now there’s a feeling of `We can beat Orlando’. We don’t just want to check off that box of playing an MLS team. They have very good players, but I don’t think they’re a team we should fear. We should respect them, but at the end of the day, it’s a soccer game. If this tournament shows anything, it is that over 90 or 120 minutes, anything can happen. We stand an amazing chance.”