Having won both of their Leagues Cup group stage fixtures, Inter Miami CF sealed their spot in the playoffs on Wednesday as winners of the South 3 group.
The Florida outfit were due to play the winners of South 2, and so had to wait until this Saturday evening to discover their next opponent. Although Houston Dynamo FC were top of the pool going into the weekend, Club Santos Laguna and Orlando City SC still needed to face off at Exploria Stadium.
After kick-off was initially delayed due to adverse weather conditions, the match more than lived up to its high-stakes billing. Although Raúl López opened the scoring for the LIGA MX side, Orlando City turned it around and veered into the lead just after half time thanks to Mauricio Pereyra’s impressive strike from range into the top corner.
By the hour mark, Santos Laguna were level again through Harold Preciado’s looping header. The final thirty minutes saw end-to-end action as both sides sought to secure their playoff spot. In the end, Peruvian midfielder Wilder Cartagena would score a timely first-ever goal for the club as his foray into the box saw him slot in a 92nd-minute winner. The goal duly prompted ecstatic celebrations both on and off the pitch - although Cartagena had the wherewithal not to take his shirt off, avoiding a second booking.
Tonight’s late drama in Orlando has set up a historic Florida derby to kick off the Leagues Cup 2023 playoffs next Wednesday. Having already seen off a nearby rival in Atlanta United FC, Inter Miami and Lionel Messi will be taking on Orlando City for a spot in the Round of 16. The winner of the eagerly anticipated match-up will take on either Mazatlán FC or FC Dallas in the following round.
For The Lions, it’ll be an unforgettable opportunity to take on a host of international stars Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba, and Messi himself. Once the match kicks off though, they’ll need to avoid getting too starstruck - with three goals already in this summer’s tournament, Argentina’s World Cup hero will be ready to punish any defensive slip-up.