Paunović's attention to detail, commitment to youth can resurrect Chicago Fire
For Veljko Paunović, the decision to take the Chicago Fire head-coaching job was never a difficult one.
“I see the Chicago Fire as a hurt lion ready to unleash all its power,” he said in a statement after joining the club.
That confidence was not shared unanimously by fans of the league. European head coaches in MLS have, for the most part, struggled. Whether it be Ruud Gullit, Aron Winter, or even further back, Carlos Queiroz, the accepted truth is that coaches arriving fresh from across the Atlantic Ocean do not understand the unique mechanics present in MLS.
But Paunović is different, and here is why: He is blessed with the experience of playing in MLS, an advantage which is not only supplemented by his detail-orientated approach to work, but also an ability to speak six different languages.
“His last couple of spells at clubs, Partizan (Serbia) and especially Philadelphia Union, were probably more for him maturing for a role of being a manager,” Serbian journalist Nebojsa Markovic tells FourFourTwo. “He always seemed intelligent, he was like that on the pitch and when he became Serbia's Under-18 coach, you could see that as well the way he spoke about goals he wanted to achieve.”
When interviewed by Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez, Paunović provided copious notes on Chicago’s opponents in MLS as well as the club’s own youth prospects. “All signs just kept coming back to him,” Rodriguez said. “In the end, we felt that we had the right man at the right time under the right circumstances.”
Confident in his ability, Paunović has already made bold decisions, including trading hometown favorite Harry Shipp and defender Joevin Jones. Yet even with glowing references from Rodriguez, there remains questions over Paunović and his style of coaching.
“Adaptive” is how the Serbian describes himself. Molding his teams to exploit the weaknesses of their opponents, he has adhered to many of the traits of Serbian football. His U-20 side favored short passing, tactical discipline and a strong defensive unit. Paunović supplemented those core principles by adding power and stamina that had been lacking in previous generations. “Our persistence, desire for victory, and motivation were on highest level. We never give up and we always reach our goal,” Serbian midfielder Sergej Milinković-Savić said after his team’s extra-time victory over Brazil in the U-20 World Cup final last year.
Despite having a burgeoning reputation in youth football, Paunović is still viewed by some as a hire out of left field. “Clearly, this was not an obvious choice, at least not as had been reported many times over,” Rodriguez said in December. “But we have chosen on the basis of our values, on a set of principles of play that we believe are fundamental foundations of all successful teams.”
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Looking toward the future
To study Paunović’s coaching resumé further is to see just why the Chicago Fire took the less obvious candidate. Meticulous and passionate about the sport, Paunović’s approach extends far outside of the field. When he first met his U-20 side, he sat them down to watch footage of the Serbia team (then Yugoslavia) that won the 1987 U-20 World Cup. During their time together he often conversed with his players over social media, citing it as an important tool. Paunović carries that trait with him to Chicago; he has already used Twitter to engage with fans.
Even operating his own YouTube channel, Paunović’s videos are an entertaining mix of travel diaries and match action from his time with the Serbian U-20 side. “You play the way you train,” one video introduction reads. Paunović showcases his training sessions, in which he often takes part in a hands-on way. He believes the development of young players is vital and he is not aiming to make good soccer players, but good human beings.
“We focus on development and understanding of the game but also on human values,” he told UEFA.com in an interview. “The most important thing in a team is to have good values like respect, responsibility, mutual confidence, trust … If we want to teach something without these values, we are missing the point and wasting our time."
The Fire’s own youth setup has performed well on a national stage in recent years, winning the U.S. Soccer Development Academy Championships at the U-17/U-18 level last year. Paunović’s holistic approach should also see input from senior players in the youth setup. “We want to have a good combination between youngsters and experienced veteran players… internationally experienced players who can give support and knowledge to the youngsters,” he said.
Such an approach may even pay dividends for the U.S. men’s national team. As well as Matt Polster, defender Brandon Vincent is tipped to have a bright future at the international level. Paunović’s eagerness to take Vincen, over other options in January’s SuperDraft reaffirms his coaching principles. Vincent is a fullback that is able to contribute on both sides of the ball and he could easily develop into a staple of the U.S. national team for years to come.
A players' coach
Paunović’s impact, however, will not be confined to the young players.
“Paunović was a great technician and could score goals from all kinds of situations, whether it was cunning lobs, shots from distance or even headers,” Markovic says. “The wingers, Andrija Zivkovic and Mijat Gacinovic, are the kind of players that could do a lot on their own, so they had more freedom on the flanks. Zivkovic, on the right, was the team's biggest star and his directness was very refreshing. He would take on defenders and get past them basically anytime.”
Yet perhaps the new Fire coach’s greatest skill was how quickly he forged a unity and togetherness among his U-20 side. Working with a group of players from a variety of backgrounds, Paunović also appreciated what his success could mean for those back in Serbia. "A message of unity, of passion, and playing with heart,” he said. “And I hope we can ignite our people to start living this style of life after 20 years of struggle and difficult times.”
Such self-awareness will serve him well in Chicago. The club is at a low ebb after a disappointing 2015, a period during which fans frustration often hung over the stadium as the team missed the playoffs for the third straight year and the fifth time in six seasons. For those that have remained loyal to the club, there is a need for inspiration.
When Paunović took his U-20 team to face Brazil in the final of the World Cup, he chose his words expertly. “Today we all have our maturity test. Today is our footballing prom,” he told his players. “We play a World Cup final with the best possible rival. I want you to enjoy the match today. There is no pressure on us today.”
Serbia won the match and the U-20 World Cup after that rousing speech, providing a light at the end of the tunnel for soccer in that country amid struggles for the senior national team. That is the kind of success that Fire fans could only dream about last season, but they now hope Paunović can bring that same golden touch to Toyota Park and unleash the lion, as he says.
“I think it will be a good place for him if Chicago are actually looking for a long-term manager,” Markovic explains. “His ideas of improving through the youth system need time, which in Europe wouldn't be the easiest thing to do. I hope Chicago gives him time. Paunović is very methodical and studious.”
Paunović’s time begins on Sunday.