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Facing Messi: What does it mean to FC Cincinnati players?

FC Cincinnati prepares to face Inter Miami and Lionel Messi in a US Open Cup semifinal match
Lionel Messi
Posted at 8:37 PM, Aug 22, 2023

There's a common thread among every FC Cincinnati player we've spoken with ahead of Wednesday's match against Inter Miami — a team led by world-class player Lionel Messi.

"During the game, I have to completely focus on doing my job and helping Cincinnati win," said FC Cincinnati forward Brandon Vazquez.

The players are focused on winning the U.S. Open Cup semifinal match, which happens to be against the top soccer player in the world.

"Once I'm in the game, I'm zoned-in and focused on what I have to do," said FC Cincinnati defender Matt Miazga. "I can't dwell and think about who's on the pitch."

The significance of facing Messi, though, isn't lost on FC Cincinnati's players.

"I grew up with a poster of Messi on my wall," said Vazquez.

FC Cincinnati defender Nick Hagglund, who grew up in the Cincinnati area, understands how special Wednesday night will be for soccer fans in Cincinnati.

“Growing up here, having the opportunity to see Messi play in my hometown would be an incredible experience for my younger self,” Hagglund said.

Wednesday's experience will be special for most players and fans inside the stadium, but none more than FC Cincinnati's captain, Luciano Acosta.

Like Messi, Acosta is from Argentina. Acosta was on the field last year when Messi led their home country to a World Cup title.

While on the field, he made sure to get a photo with Messi, who he calls an "idol."

"I asked him for a photo and nothing more," said Acosta.

This time around, Acosta will ask for more than a photo.

"I'll ask him for his shirt because I'd be very grateful," said Acosta, via translation.

Trading jerseys after a game is common among pro athletes. Acosta said that's the main thing his younger self would've wanted.

Acosta also has a message for Messi, which he hopes to pass along on Wednesday: "Thank you for making everyone who loves [soccer] so happy."

Messi is 36 years old and has been playing professionally for about two decades.

At the time of Messi's first professional game, Vazquez had just turned 5 years old. FC Cincinnati goalkeeper Roman Celentano had just turned 3.

Currently 29, Acosta is one of the veterans on Cincinnati's roster — as is Hagglund, at 30.

"This is a guy you watched when you were 18 years old in college. Game-planning for him when I'm 30 years old is unthinkable," said Hagglund. "It's cool for that to come to fruition."

Tickets for Wednesday's match are significantly more expensive than a typical game.

“I expect to see a lot of orange and a lot of people supporting their local team," said FC Cincinnati head coach Pat Noonan. "Hopefully [Messi's presence] doesn’t change the jersey [fans] are wearing … but our supporters have been outstanding and I don’t expect anything different.”

Multiple times throughout our interview with Hagglund, he made sure to repeat the mantra:

"When you're on the field, it's time to get the job done," said Hagglund. "He's playing a game just like you are."

The winner of Wednesday's match punches a ticket to the U.S. Open Cup final against either Salt Lake City or Houston.