Veljko Paunovic - Chicago Fire - close-up
USA Today Sports

Veljko Paunovic: There's no favorite in Leagues Cup match vs. Cruz Azul

BRIDGEVIEW – The consistent message from Chicago Fire coach Veljko Paunovic at Monday’s Leagues Cup press conference was that he was treating Tuesday’s matchup with Cruz Azul no differently than any other match.

The Fire may not have done anything special to prepare for Cruz Azul, but Paunovic believes being aware of what is going on elsewhere, particularly within North American soccer, is simply a part of the job.

“It’s a challenge but it’s something we are used to,” Paunovic said. “He who is passionate about the game and who loves learning … about the game, he never sleeps, he always follows the other leagues.”

Paunovic also mentioned how Chicago gained insights during scouting trips in the past and from watching La Maquina players Yoshimar Yotun (ex-Orlando City) and Rafael Baca (ex-San Jose Earthquakes) play in MLS.

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His counterpart, Pedro Caixinha, was very matter of fact, saying Cruz Azul have scouted the Fire and feel well prepared. He singled out Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nico Gaitan (whom he coached against in Portugal) and Aleksandar Katai as players who pose a unique threat, also adding US men’s national team midfielder Djordje Mihailovic as a player “of great quality.” 

“We know what we are going to face, we respect what we are going to face,” Caixinha said. “But, of course, we are going to do everything and expect to win.”

Chicago have the benefit of being in midseason form, while Cruz Azul’s new season has just begun. Still, Paunovic doesn’t think who will be favored and why is worth focusing on.

“Their roster is full of experienced players,” Paunovic said of Cruz Azul. “When you put it on paper, you don’t know what’s going to be an advantage.”

However, Caixinha had clearly spent some time thinking about the contrast, his side having kicked off the 2019 Liga MX Apertura on Saturday with a 0-0 draw vs Necaxa. They were reduced to 10 men when center back Julio Cesar Dominguez was shown a red card in the 72nd minute.

“The difference is they have 2,070 minutes and we just have 90 minutes of playing, so the rhythm is totally different at this moment,” Caixinha said.

Caixinha also noted how the Fire’s 10th-place position in the Eastern Conference standings isn’t a reason to take them lightly. Chicago is 1-6-4 across their last 11 MLS matches.

“If you watch, the reality is when they play at home it’s totally different,” Caixinha said of Chicago’s form (5-2-5) at SeatGeek Stadium. “The only five wins they have, they did at home.” 

Given that there is no return leg in Mexico, Caixinha said they will have to “overload” on this match if they want to advance. Cruz Azul are setting their goals high with a sight on winning a treble in less than six months. The Leagues Cup may not have any history, but a trophy is still valuable.

“This is our second competition in the semester,” Caixinha said, the SuperCopa MX having been the first. “We already won the first one, and we want to celebrate and be the first ones to achieve this new Leagues Cup."

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