Last Saturday, Inter Miami CF beat Nashville SC on penalties to win the 2023 Leagues Cup. This is the first trophy in the young club’s history; it was founded in 2018 and only began play in 2020.
Many plaudits will rightly go to Inter’s new talisman, a certain Lionel Messi. The Argentine brought more to South Florida than his superstar reputation, scoring a competition-best ten goals. Even before his stoppage-time screamer against Cruz Azul, there was Messi-mania in Miami.
But this Inter squad is full of unsung heroes. Chief among them is one of our own — former Cal goalkeeper Drake Callender. Callender decided the shootout at both ends. After scoring the go-ahead goal, he also batted away his opposite number’s effort to confirm the win.
The stadium erupted, and Callender’s teammates mobbed him at the center circle. The greatest player of all time happened to be one of them.
Callender had come in clutch throughout the tournament: On top of his man-of-the-match display in the final, he also made huge stops in the quarterfinal against Philadelphia Union and in the group stage against Cruz Azul.
Unsurprisingly, the former Bear was named the tournament’s best goalkeeper. Without Callender’s goalkeeping heroics, Messi arguably wouldn’t have won his record-setting 44th team trophy.
For his part, the Argentine acknowledges that: Speaking to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Callender revealed just how much Messi trusts him.
“The vibe that I got was that he believes in me and that he knows what I’m capable of,” Callender said. “Of course in penalty kicks, the goalkeeper plays a pretty big role, so I think not only Leo, but my whole team kinda gave me a bunch of support in that moment.”
The cup win is just the latest stage of Callender’s meteoric rise. Despite a standout career at Cal, in which he twice earned All Pac-12 honors, he initially struggled to break through in Miami.
He spent 2021 with Inter’s second team — then known as Fort Lauderdale CF — where he earned his stripes as a starting goalkeeper. Callender returned to Miami in 2022 as third-choice and only got his shot due to an injury crisis between the sticks.
But he took this chance and ran with it. After making his MLS debut in a 1-3 loss to FC Cincinnati, Callender established himself as Miami’s backup goalkeeper. His impressive showings in the US Open Cup confirmed he was ready for the next level.
By July 2022, he was the first-choice pair of gloves. He started 24 games in what proved to be a breakthrough campaign, improving with each match.
Callender’s Leagues Cup exploits have sent his rising stock into orbit. Though he’s been called up to the United States’ national team twice before, he looks primed to make his debut in Team USA’s upcoming friendlies with Uzbekistan and Oman.
Competition in the USMNT’s net is fierce. Nottingham Forest F.C.’s Matt Turner is the undisputed starter, while the likes of Zack Steffen, Ethan Horvath and Sean Johnson all contend with Callender to play second fiddle — all three have already been capped.
But Johnson is out with a long-term injury, while Horvath and Steffen have yet to see play this season. If recent events are any indication, Callender will seize this opportunity.
Messi, Callender and Inter Miami won’t have to wait long to chase another trophy. They’re set to face Houston Dynamo in the U.S. Open Cup Final on Sept. 26. Callender, who was once again the shootout standout in the semifinal, will be first on the team sheet.