Chicago Fire look to embark on new era of international play in Leagues Cup

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. - Inclusion in the inaugural Leagues Cup means venturing into recently uncharted territory for the Chicago Fire.

While the competition itself is new to all eight participants, the Fire will be playing their first meaningful game against international competition in nine years, having last played in the now-defunct North American SuperLiga in 2010.

Anticipating the uniqueness of the occasion and the chance to take on one of North America’s best teams over the last year, recently-crowned SuperCopa MX champions Cruz Azul to SeatGeek Stadium on Tuesday (8:30 pm ET | ESPN+, TUDN in US; TSN GO in Canada), the Fire aren’t taking any of this for granted.

“We welcome this opportunity with great excitement, we think it’s a fantastic experience for our team,” said Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic. “We always believe that international competitions help the team grow and we are also embracing the possibility to play against one of the best teams not only in Mexico or in this continent but around the world.”

The Fire have faced a few elite international sides in recent years, including Tottenham Hotspur in 2014 and Bayern Munich last season. But unlike those international friendlies, the Leagues Cup presents the chance for the Fire to win their first piece of silverware since 2006.

Doing so would add three games to a currently busy Major League Soccer schedule as the Fire try to stay within reach of the Eastern Conference playoff places, but Chicago defender Bastian Schweinsteiger, for whom the Fire’s most recent international fixture served as a testimonial match, said he doesn’t see the extra calendar congestion as a concern.

“We have a busy schedule, but I love playing games,” said Schweinsteiger, joking that he preferred another game to more training. “It doesn’t matter that it’s Wednesday, Saturday, [Tuesday], Saturday, this kind of rhythm.”

As much as both Schweinsteiger and Paunovic expressed the value of this opportunity, and as much of a departure from the week-to-week of MLS the Leagues Cup is, Paunovic said it isn’t affecting the way he and his squad are going about their preparations. He wants his team to have a strong mentality no matter the opponent.

“Playing against teams we don’t regularly play, it’s nothing to be honest,” Paunovic said. “Every team aspires to grow to that level that you will face teams on the international level.”

The Fire want to be in the semifinals of the Leagues Cup, Paunovic saying his team’s goal at this point is simply to be a difficult opponent and give themselves the best chance to advance. Whatever happens Tuesday night, he views it as a positive experience.

“Same as Basti, I love games,” Paunovic said. “I love these kind of challenges, and I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for us to learn and grow as a team and as a club.”