Veljko Paunovic could be coaching for his job Saturday night, when his struggling Chicago Fire seek just their second win in 12 matches as they host D.C. United.
Paunovic has seen his side booed off the Seat Geek Stadium pitch following Chicago’s last two home matches, and things did not go much better for the Fire (5-8-10) on Saturday in their 2-0 loss at Philadelphia. Chicago finished with just three shots on frame – though Diego Campos hit the crossbar in the 88th minute – as its road winless streak reached 23 matches (0-6-17) dating back to last year.
The frustrations continued Tuesday in the inaugural Leagues Cup in which MLS teams are pitted against Liga MX counterparts from Mexico in a tournament format. Despite talk of potentially fielding a strong first-choice lineup ahead of the match, realities of trying to stay in the playoff picture resulted in Paunovic making seven changes to Saturday’s side, which was clearly outclassed in a 2-0 defeat at home to Cruz Azul.
“We obviously wanted to put the best possible and ready guys on the field,” Paunovic said in defending his lineup selection. “We have guys with issues, guys with fatigue and we have injured guys. This was the best lineup we could assemble for today. The guys who played today deserve more respect … we played in our stadium against an opponent’s crowd … and I think they fought like never before.”
The Fire are seven points behind Montreal and New England for the final two playoff spots but have taken just seven points from their last 11 matches (1-4-6). Even that win – a stunning 5-1 rout of reigning MLS Cup champion Atlanta United on July 3 – comes with the caveats of facing an overturned side in midweek that also played with 10 men for 79 minutes.
D.C. United (10-8-7) are looking to wrap up a three-match road swing on a positive note after a frustrating 2-0 loss at Atlanta on Sunday. Coach Ben Olsen opted to hold out star striker Wayne Rooney to avoid playing the former England international on artificial turf twice in a four-day span, and while the offense struggled to create chances and finished with only three shots on target, the Black-and-Red had designs on a point after Bill Hamid stoned Josef Martinez on a 72nd-minute penalty kick.
It was not to be, though, as D.C. conceded in the 89th minute and again during stoppage time in falling to 1-2-2 in its last five matches. Olsen, though, was pleased with his side’s fight in trying circumstances.
“It was a real gutsy group effort, and I feel for them,” he said. “We knew it would look like this with the short rest and eventually they broke us down. I think we did a fairly good job of frustrating them for long stretches of the game.”
Rooney, who has 13 goals and factored on more than half of United’s 34 goals in all competitions when including his seven assists, is expected to be available for this match after spending the week in England with his family. United’s win over FC Cincinnati on July 18 is their only road win in their last seven league matches outside Audi Field (1-4-2).
The teams played out a wild 3-3 draw in the nation’s capital May 29, with the Fire rescuing a point on Francisco Calvo’s goal on 92 minutes. Chicago took a 2-0 lead in the first quarter-hour on goals by C.J. Sapong and Djordje Mihailovic, only to be pegged back on a brace from Ulises Segura on either side of halftime. Luciano Acosta gave D.C. a 3-2 lead in the 81st minute before Calvo’s late equalizer.
United have just one victory in their last 11 trips to Chicago but have claimed seven draws in that stretch.
(Veljko Paunovic photo courtesy Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports)