Pedro Caixinha acknowledges he has an obligation to steer Cruz Azul past the LA Galaxy and into the first Leagues Cup final, but he knows it won't be easy, no matter who starts for the home team.
The Cementeros' Portuguese coach is an MLS admirer, and believes Mexico can learn much from how the game is played north of the border.
“The league is growing,” Caixinha said on the eve of the semifinal showdown Tuesday night at Dignity Health Sports Park (10:30 pm ET | ESPN2, TUDN, TSN). “The way I see the game [that MLS plays] is much more close to the way the game is played in Europe: There's less space, so you need to play faster, you need to [handle] the game differently.
“In Mexico, I think you have more quality on the squads, you have more quality [among] the players, but you play sometimes [with players spaced] more than 70 meters on the pitch with both teams, with two [defensive] blocks in that distance. I don't see the game like that. I see the game the way it's played here — as a box, as two teams knowing they need to defend when they don't have the ball, that they all attack when they have the ball — rather than have one, two, three or sometimes four players that are up front and all the rest are behind.
“So my vision of football is [more in tune with] the teams here rather than in Mexico.”
Mexican clubs have historically dominated competitions with MLS, claiming all 11 Concacaf Champions League crowns since the competition began in 2008 — eight of those in all-Mexico finals — and 14 successive regional titles overall since Costa Rica's Saprissa won the Concacaf Champions Cup in 2005. If that's not enough to make Cruz Azul, which beat the Galaxy in the 1997 CONCACAF Champions' Cup final, a significant favorite to reach the Sept. 18 title game in Las Vegas against Club America or UANL Tigres, then its talented squad ought to.
“There's a responsibility for us to win this week,” said Caixinha, who guided Santos Laguna to the 2013 CCL final. “I don't know about the other teams from Mexico, but for us, we have a goal to win three competitions [in the second half of 2019]. This is going to be the second one.”
The Mexico City giant captured the Supercopa MX last month in Carson and are off to a 2-1-2 start, good for eighth place in the Liga MX apertura. As for the Leagues Cup, Caixinha fielded a first-choice squad in the opening-round victory over the Chicago Fire and appears likely to do so again against LA.
The Cementeros feature longtime El Tri goalkeeper Jesus Corona, center back Julio Cesar Dominguez, and forwards Orbelin Pineda and Argentina Milton Caraglio. They also have Los Angeles-raised midfielder Rafael Baca, who played at Loyola Marymount University before heading north for a two-and-a-half-year stint with the San Jose Earthquakes. Baca, formerly a Cruz Azul starter, has not seen any minutes this season.
“I've been watching Cruz Azul, because I'm always trying to watch the games in the world,” Galaxy head coach Guillermo Barros Schelotto said. “I like the Mexican league and I follow it for many years. I know the names, I know the coach, ... so I know who we are going to play tomorrow. I knew them really well. Cruz Azul is a danger team.”
The Galaxy, playing their fourth game in 10 days and facing a showdown this weekend against crosstown rival LAFC, could be tempted to rest several of their first-choice players. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Jonathan dos Santos have both played 270 minutes so far in that stretch. Argentine newcomer Cristian Pavon has played 264 since making his MLS debut back on Aug. 11.
Caixinha wouldn't criticize LA's approach to the tournament, whatever they choose.
“We have the greatest respect for the opponent, in regard to the preparations for this match,” he said. “Our objective is to go out to the field and win. .... Cruz Azul is a great institution. We have the ability to win, and that's our objective. That's why we have the objective to win all the trophies.”