Paunovic after Leagues Cup loss to Cruz Azul: Fire's XI deserves respect

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – At his Monday press conference ahead of the opening game of the inaugural Leagues Cup, Chicago Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic talked about how Cruz Azul presented a “top challenge, top opportunity” and that the club wanted to show their “best possible image.”

So there was some surprise when the Fire’s lineup for Tuesday’s quarterfinal match at SeatGeek Stadium included a mix of typical substitutes, squad reserves and even Andre Reynolds II, the Fire’s first Homegrown player from Chicago proper, making his full Fire debut.

Paunovic strongly rebuffed the idea that this was a weak team or a rotated squad, insisting it was the best XI at his disposal.

“They deserve more respect,” he said of his players, insisting his choices were not a product of perceiving the Leagues Cup to be less important than MLS fixtures. “We are trying to put the best available players on the field and this is the best lineup we could assemble for today.”

Paunovic cited fatigue, injuries and other issues as the reasons for the limited availability of his roster. Nico Gaitan and Aleksandar Katai were not in the squad as they continue to recover from knocks suffered against Columbus last week, while new acquisition Jonathan Bornstein awaits clearance following his transfer from Maccabi Netanya in Israel.

Paunovic preferred to focus on the players who were on the field for Chicago in the 2-0 loss, with no shortage of praise for young players like Reynolds, Grant Lillard, Amando Moreno and Jeremiah Gutjahr.

“The guys who played … that’s how they have to play when they have the opportunity,” he said. “There was a different spirit, a spirit that we need from now on. And we are going to use this performance and what we saw today to prepare the team and redirect against our next opponent.”

That opponent is Wayne Rooney and D.C. United, who are currently third in the Eastern Conference and visit Chicago on Saturday night (8 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US; DAZN in Canada) in each team’s final match before the MLS All-Star Game.

Both against D.C. and after the All-Star break, the collection of atypical starters who made a strong impression on Tuesday could give Paunovic more to think about in his team selections as the Fire look to fight their way up the table towards the playoff places. Given their current position – they have just one win in their last thirteen matches across all competitions – there is no shortage of opportunity for players to make an impact, no matter how much experience (or lack thereof) they have.

“Everyone showed today they are available for the team and they are ready to perform,” Paunovic said. “We will always put [in the lineup] the guys we believe are ready and we believe can get us a victory.”