Maybe it would've been the opposite in past years, but there wasn't even any question this weekend. With a beat-up squad and Wednesday's CONCACAF Champions League match against the New York Red Bulls approaching, Chivas turned to their young players Friday against Morelia.
It actually worked, with the Guadalajara side earning a 2-1 win thanks to a double from Rodolfo Pizarro, one of five regulars who started the contest. The three points put the Liguilla back on the table for Chivas, who sit two points away from the eighth and final position with four matches left to play.
As we saw this weekend, though, Chivas's true focus is on the CCL. While some of his academy players gave him performances to ponder, manager Matias Almeyda will put the strongest XI he can on the field looking for a strong first-leg result ahead of a second leg at Red Bull Arena.
Even if Chivas sneak into the playoffs, though, Almeyda knows his best chance for silverware is in this tournament. His team isn't deep enough for a six-match run at the trophy, especially with the second tiebreaker in the quarterfinal and semifinal going to the team with a better regular-season finish.
Injuries to most of the back line have struck Chivas this season, while Angel Zaldivar's absence has forced Almeyda to turn to players like teenager Jose Juan Macias or 20-year-old Jesus Godinez to spell Alan Pulido.
Right back Jesus Sanchez and winger Javier Lopez will miss out on Wednesday's contest. Still, the format of the CCL, especially in its new iteration where teams start in the round of 16 and don't contest a group stage, has benefited a Chivas team that has struggled in league play since winning the title in May 2017.
"We're on our way in this tournament," Almeyda said of the CCL. "The first goal is to get to the final, and we're after that knowing that we're facing a great opponent. The tournament deserves teams facing off against other teams with lots of footballing history, like New York in this case. This gives the competition something more positive and above all that it can take you to a Club World Cup. We're convinced we can do it."
Even at one of the region's most historic clubs, it would be no small feat to win a continental title. Chivas won the first-ever CONCACAF Cup back in 1962 and haven't won another since. (Incidentally, Chivas was set to play the final of the 1963 tournament against a Haitian club but travel difficulties forced postponement and eventually the Guadalajara club elected for a European tour rather than the rescheduled matches, forfeiting the title to Racing Club Haitien).
Chivas fans might not see it that way, or maybe would value a CCL title only if it came against rival and fellow semifinalist Club America. The chance to go to the Club World Cup, though, and showcase to the world the ideas Chivas have as a club that fields all-Mexican players would be incredibly rewarding for the supporters. Sort past all the bombast Chivas and their fans employ and there really is an historic, world-famous team. Winning an international trophy while breaking a nearly 60-year drought would be a statement to the world that Chivas are back.
The Red Bulls aren't an easy out. They relied on heroics from goalkeeper Luis Robles and forward Bradley Wright-Phillips to get a win in the first leg of the quarterfinal against Tijuana. Still, they accomplished the task of beating a Mexican team at home and were able to see out the second leg. Chivas aren't expecting a difficult atmosphere next week in the second leg but still know they have to get a result Wednesday.
"I think the tie depends a lot on how the first match goes. We have to be smart and have to score goals, but also we're always the home team when we're in the U.S., so it's the same. We feel at home in a lot of places, that's the reality, but we must take advantage of Wednesday's match," Almeyda said.
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Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch also put a priority on this game with his player selection this weekend, though they've had more help from MLS with scheduling and also don't have to worry about the playoff chase for several months. Balancing the league-CCL-league grind "has been and will continue being difficult," Almeyda said. "We're not making excuses. There's a reality I've mentioned that the squad is small, but it's created the chance for a lot of young players to play and they've taken advantage of the opportunity, every one playing their role to raise the level of the group and get results."
It will be up to his top squad to get results in the CCL, a tournament Chivas must throw everything into if they want to come out of 2018 with something to show for their efforts.