Nashville SC take on Inter Miami CF tomorrow in the first-ever Leagues Cup final. It’s the first time either side has played in final of any kind, another episode in the intertwined history of the pair of 2020 expansion clubs.
Inter Miami CF
Leagues Cup: 1st (South Group 2) | 6 pts | +5 GD
Round of 32: 3-1 win vs Orlando City
Round of 16: 4-4 win at FC Dallas (penalties)
Quarterfinal: 4-0 win vs Charlotte FC
Semifinal: 4-1 win at Philadelphia Union
It’s hard to imagine a more drastic turnaround. Miami were at the bottom of the MLS table when the Leagues Cup tournament started and have consistently struggled since their 2020 expansion season.
That all changed when they signed Lionel Messi at the start of the summer transfer window. Just months removed from his 2022 World Cup win with Argentina, the greatest player of all time has completely turned things around for the Herons. Alongside Spanish World Cup winners Sergio Busquets and Jordi Alba, Miami went from the worst team in MLS to arguably the most in-form team in North America.
Miami lead Leagues Cup with 21 goals scored in just six games. They haven’t lost since Messi buried a free-kick winner in stoppage time against Cruz Azul. They’ve scored four goals in four of six matches with Messi on the field. They are on a hot, hot, hot streak.
They certainly showed vulnerability, though, in their semifinal against Philadelphia. Their four goals came from just five shots, and allowed the Union to rack up 16 shots and 2.32 expected goals. As good as Miami were, Philadelphia decimated themselves with unforced errors.
Under new manager Tata Martino (yes, the same Tata Martino who won the 2018 MLS Cup with Atlanta United), Miami have been dynamic and dangerous playing in their 4-3-3 shape.
Dixon Arroyo and Benja Cremaschi have been dilligent runners, covering ground in midfield and allowing Messi a free role, nominally playing on the left side but drifting into space anywhere on the pitch, where he can either pick an incisive pass or cut through a defense on the dribble.
While Messi has understandably grabbed all the headlines, Sergio Busquets has been just as important. His ability to calmly play the ball through multiple lines of pressure ensures that Messi will always be able to receive the ball. He’s the pipeline. One of the greatest midfielders of his generation, Busquets does the simple things perfectly and makes the difficult look effortless.
Add in Jordi Alba and Diego Gómez, as well as a resurgent DeAndre Yedlin, and Miami are as dangerous attacking unit as there is in North America.
Leagues Cup: 2nd (Central Group 4) | 3 pts | 0 GD
Round of 32: 1-1 win at FC Cincinnati (penalties)
Round of 16: 2-2 win vs. Club América (penalties)
Quarterfinal: 5-0 win vs. Minnesota United
Semifinal: 2-0 win vs Monterrey
Injuries / Absences:
Out: Nick DePuy (achilles)
Questionable: Randall Leal (ankle)
Nashville are riding high after their run to the final. They knocked off Supporters’ Shield leaders FC Cincinnati on the road, steamrolled an in-form Minnesota United team, and put in club-best performances against Liga MX gigantes Club América and Monterrey. This side is full of confidence.
There are three big personnel questions for Nashville heading into the final.
First, should Joe Willis return to the starting lineup, or should Elliot Panicco maintain his place? Willis was absent during the Minnesota match due to a personal emergency, and Panicco didn’t miss a beat. After subbing on for penalty kick shootouts in back-to-back matches, he’s kept clean sheets in the quarter and semi-finals. It’s hard to justify sitting him for the final, but Willis has been stalwart for Nashville for three-and-a-half years.
The other two questions come down to fitness. Will Jacob Shaffelburg be able to start after coming off injured in the 17th minute against Monterrey? And will Sam Surridge be able to start? Surridge has come on at halftime for Nashville’s last two matches. While starting him would give Nashville a boost, it would run the risk of not having him available late in the match, when Nashville could be desperate for an equalizing goal.
Nashville will have their hands full defending not just Messi, but players like Robert Taylor and Josef Martínez who have looked like completely different players since the summer transfer window. It will be a difficult test, but after passing equally difficult tests against Club América and Monterrey, they’ll feel up for the challenge.
Score: Nashville 2-1
Scorers: Hany Mukhtar, Sam Surridge
MOTM: Hany Mukhtar
Bold Prediction: Nashville score first and then score a late second-half winner after Lionel Messi equalizes.
Teams: Nashville SC vs Inter Miami CF
Odds: NSH (+255), MIA (-115) via DraftKings
Date: Saturday, August 19
Time: 8:00 pm CDT, GEODIS Park, Nashville, TN
TV: MLS Season Pass on Apple TV
Radio: 104.5 The Zone app
Forecast: 88º/61º. 78º at kickoff. Mostly sunny. 2-3 mph winds. Humidity 71%.