Inter Miami advances to U.S. Open Cup semifinals with win over Birmingham Legion

South Florida may have been immersed in Messi Mania on Wednesday, but there was even more to be excited about regarding Inter Miami’s future following the team’s latest tournament victory.

Inter Miami advanced to the U.S. Open Cup semifinals on Wednesday night after using a second-half goal from Nicolas Stefanelli to edge USL Championship club Birmingham Legion, 1-0, at Protective Stadium in Birmingham, Alabama.

Stefanelli authored the decisive goal in the 56th minute, pushing Inter Miami into the next round for an Aug. 23 date with FC Cincinnati that could feature Lionel Messi. The World Cup winner and global superstar announced earlier in the day that he planned to sign with Inter Miami as a free agent this summer.

Wednesday’s narrow road victory marked the first time the South Florida side reached this deep stage of the Open Cup, putting the team one win away from the first final in franchise history and two from an unprecedented title.

“We made history today,” said Inter Miami interim head coach Javier Morales, who refrained from discussing anything regarding Messi on Wednesday night. “It is the first time that the team makes the semifinals. We are very happy, and I am very proud of the players and everyone around the team.

“This is not just about one player or the coach. It is about everyone, and Inter Miami made history today by making the semifinals.”

Stefanelli’s goal, his second in the competition, came following some penetrative play down the right. Substitute winger Robert Taylor fed starting attacker Corentin Jean with a through ball, and the Frenchman proceeded to hit a low cross that Stefanelli directed home with a looped shot despite not making the cleanest contact on the ball.

“We were looking to penetrate in those areas,” said Morales, who picked up the first win of his managerial career in the game. “The reason we put Robert Taylor in at halftime because we believed that on the right side we could get that advantage, and Robert got the ball in a wide area after we combined a few passes.”

Inter Miami goalkeeper Drake Callender was called upon to help protect that lead, making two stupendous saves late on to record the clean sheet.

The first stop came in the 84th minute when Callender soared to his right to deny a long-distance laser from attacker Tyler Pasher. The second occurred six minutes later, with the shot-stopper reacting well to prevent a Leonardo Campana own goal following a flubbed clearance from the striker.

“The guys were focused,” Morales said. “The pregame talk was focused on the team, the opponent, and the way we were going to play. That was not anything different than before.”

Morales turned to the same 4-2-3-1 formation that he opted for in his coaching debut in this past weekend’s 2-1 league loss to D.C. United. There was one change made to the midweek starting XI, with midfielder David Ruiz getting the nod in place of the injured Dixon Arroyo.

Reserve centerback Ryan Sailor, who was also injured in last Saturday’s loss, did not dress for the midweek quarterfinals bout as well. Veteran midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro, meanwhile, came off the bench in the 72nd minute Wednesday to make his first appearance since April 26.

A festive and memorable day after Messi’s headline-grabbing announcement, Inter Miami seemed to have benefited from there being no video review in the U.S. Open Cup in the 23rd minute.

A shot in the 18-yard box appeared to hit centerback Sergii Kryvtsov’s outstretched right arm, but head official Sergii Demianchuk pointed for a corner kick despite vehement appeals for a penalty from the hosts.

“When we play against an opponent, we do not put attention if they are from MLS or USL,” Morales said. “Especially in this stage when we are playing in a quarterfinal. We respect every opponent that we have, and today was no exception.”

Both sides traded early chances prior to that controversial moment. Birmingham Legion attacker Enzo Martinez had the game’s first scoring opportunity, hitting a low effort that forced Callender into a sure-handed save in the second minute.

Stefanelli responded two minutes later, producing the first of Inter Miami’s seven shots on target with a low blast to the near post that was parried by Birmingham goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel.

Jean was also denied by Van Oekel on a clean look in the 47th minute, as the former MLS netminder raced off his line and made himself big enough to stop the attempt with a headed save.

There was no stopping Stefanelli’s take nine minutes later, with the diminutive Argentine ensuring Inter Miami eliminated Birmingham Legion while also putting a cherry on top of an unforgettable day.

“[Today’s win] is very important,” Morales said. “Not just for us as a team, but for the whole organization.”

Inter Miami closes out its grueling stretch of 14 games across all competitions in 49 days on Saturday, resuming MLS play by squaring off with the New England Revolution in an Eastern Conference affair that takes place before the international break.