The Chicago Fire lost at home to Mexican side Cruz Azul in the inaugural game of the CONCACAF Leagues Cup. Goals by Roberto Alvarado in the 43rd minute and Elias Hernandez in the 90th sunk Chicago, ending their run in this new tournament and any chance of salvaging something out of this season.
In the lead-up to the game, Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic and star player Bastian Schweinsteiger stressed the importance of the game against Cruz Azul and their aim to win it regardless of fixture congestion.
“That’s why we should be happy to have this chance and this opportunity to play in this Cup and take it,” Schweinsteiger said.
“A big chance to win a title. We will give everything. All the players who will be on the field will give everything to win.”
Paunovic added, “We always want to compete. Same as Basti, I love games. I love these kinds of challenges, and I think it’s going to be also a great opportunity for us to learn and grow. And also, I think it’s going to help the league grow and also it’s going to help our fan base grow too.”
You wouldn’t know the Fire thought this was a great opportunity to win a title because Paunovic sent out a heavily rotated side with only Frankowski, Bronico, and Herbers as players one would consider starters. Richard Sanchez was in goal, Nemanja Nikolic was given a start, and the rest were players who have played next to nothing this season.
Some may argue that the Fire were right in sending out essentially a B team because of their current situation in the league. They sit 10th in the league, only two spots and six points ahead of last place Cincinnati. This was an opportunity to provide at least one memorable moment by beating one of Mexico’s biggest sides in Cruz Azul.
Even if the Fire lost in the next round, the team and its supporters would have had something fondly to look back at. They had a shot as well as Cruz Azul have just gotten their season underway and are still trying to find their rhythm. The Fire ceded largely the entire first half but looked the much more dangerous team in the second when a few of the regular starters were brought on.
But to simply wave the white flag from the get go shows that the competition is more of a nuisance than anything and while they may very well have a point, sending out the reserves and losing is not going to help the league grow or grow the fan base, especially considering the crowd was roughly 90 percent Cruz Azul fans.
Paunovic did hit back a little at the notion that he sent out a weakened starting lineup.
Postgame, he said, “They deserve more respect. We are trying to put the best available players on the field and this is the best lineup we could assemble for today.”
He cited injuries and player fatigue to give some context as to why he chose to those players to start and praised the performances of some of the younger players. To his credit, the likes of Jeremiah Gutjahr, Andre Reynolds, and Grant Lillard had decent showings. But the likelihood of them getting an increased role on the team is slim.
He said he hoped to use this game and some of the performances and this game to prepare for their next opponent in D.C. United. At the same time, a win would have been good momentum to build on since they’ve only won one out of their last seven leagues game prior to the Cruz Azul game.
In any respects, the Fire’s season trudges on. As mentioned, their next game is at home against D.C. United where they look to snap a four game winless streak.