If you watched the Leagues Cup on Tuesday night to see how the Fire’s best lineup stacks up with one of the top teams in Mexico, you probably were disappointed.
Fire coach Veljko Paunovic, however, wasn’t feeling let down after the 2-0 loss to Cruz Azul, and he didn’t like the implication that his lineup reflected his thoughts on the first-year competition.
“No disrespect to the competition [or] to the opponent, and I don’t think I should actually continue with this,” Paunovic said. “It’s just … the point is that the guys who played today, I think they deserve a little bit more respect from you because they played very good. They put everything on the field, and I don’t think that’s the right way to see things.
“This team, today, here against … we played at our stadium against [the] opponent’s crowd, and I think the guys fought like never before. They deserve a little more respect. Next question.”
Fielding a starting 11 without Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nicolas Gaitan, Dax McCarty and others, the Fire hung in the match in front of an announced crowd of 14,213 that heavily favored the visitors. Cruz Azul, a finalist in the 2018 Liga MX Apertura competition, played a strong lineup and advanced to the semifinals of the tournament pitting MLS and Mexican clubs.
Meanwhile, the Fire rested some regulars and handed minutes to younger players and non-starters. Goalkeeper Richard Sanchez hasn’t played an MLS minute this year but started, and 18-year-old Homegrown player Andre Reynolds II was in the first 11 for his professional debut.
“It’s so special,” Reynolds said. “I remember going to games when I was a kid, looking at the guys on the field, and to actually be on the field and have the crowd around, it’s special.”
Only four players who started the Fire’s 2-0 loss Saturday in Philadelphia were in their opening 11. But considering the Fire’s MLS situation and busy schedule, it’s hard to blame Paunovic for the decision.
“We obviously wanted to put the best possible and ready guys on the field,” Paunovic said. “At this point, that’s what we believed is the best. We have guys with issues, we have guys with fatigue and we have injured guys. And we are trying to put always the best available players on the field, and this is the best lineup we could assemble for today.”