After a month of names and rumors regarding the Fire’s coaching search, Nelson Rodriguez has found his man and the choice comes as a bit of a surprise. Veljko Paunović has been named as the Fire’s new head coach.
While he isn’t immediately recognizable, he does have a background that would suggest some coaching chops. Paunović managed the Serbian U-20 team to the 2015 World Cup title this past summer. He has held the position with Serbia since 2012, while also managing their U-19 and U-18 sides, after retiring as a player following the 2011 season. That final year on the field was spent with the Philadelphia Union, so he’s not completely unfamiliar with MLS and its unique set of rules.
The former midfielder/striker also spent his playing days with some big clubs. Stints with Atletico Madrid, Mallorca, Hannover, Getafe, and Rubin Kazan before closing his career in MLS give him a unique perspective that Rodriguez is hoping will translate into wins.
“I made this hire because we are trying to build a winning soccer club,” Rodriguez told media during phone conference this morning. “I want our club to engender pride as much in the manner in which it conducts its business as for its result. In Veljko Paunović I found someone who shared that vision and that same purpose.”
Rodriguez acknowledged that there were other, more well-known names floated about but he kept going back to Paunović when coming down to decision time. “Clearly, this was not an obvious choice, at least not as had been reported many times over. 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, and on a hunger to win that matches that of our fans, our friends, and our partners. In using those metrics, plus many of the other characteristics that we had identified at the start of our search, Pauno was the only choice for us,” he said.
Rodriguez tackled a variety of topics in addressing the choice. First and foremost, the obvious questions were posed regarding the success, or lack thereof, from foreign based coaches in MLS.
“I know well the history of foreign coaches in the league. One of the characteristics that we specifically sought in our candidates was familiarity with Major League Soccer. His firsthand experience as a player, I think is a huge advantage. He understands what it is to live as a Major League Soccer player. He understands the nuances and difficulties of our league on the player. Playing across four different time zones, playing in very varied climatic conditions, playing at altitude, playing in the heat of a summer afternoon, and playing on artificial turf and grass. So that familiarity gave us a lot of confidence. In the process of spending time with him, he shared copious notes on players within Major League Soccer. He had video files on nearly every team in our league. He even knew about some players who had come through our Academy and are playing at Universities. I have zero doubt about his ability to adapt. In fact, adaptability is a hallmark of Pauno as an individual as evidenced by his ability to speak six different languages and the different countries that he successfully played in. I think his adaptability is seen in his approach as a coach and in the tactics he employs and the versatility of his teams. While I am aware of the history of perhaps what some consider a lack of success, I’m convinced that he’s really well prepared for this opportunity,” explained the Fire’s General Manager.
That knowledge of MLS may help Paunović succeed where other Euro based coaches have failed.
“I do believe he has great familiarity,” he continued. During the interview process, Paunović showed his homework via an “evaluation of other teams in MLS, his most thorough evaluation of our own team, where he saw opportunities for improvement, where he believed there might need to be some changes.”
According to Rodriguez, that evaluation included what he called Paunović’s “great confidence” in the current roster assembled.
“I don’t mean this in any way as a reflection of those who came before, but he believes there is a lot of untapped potential within our group. He took the time to learn and to speak intelligently about players who have come through our Academy. He not only has familiarity with Major League Soccer, he has familiarity with the player development system in Major League Soccer, and specifically with Chicago Fire.”
Youth to Pro jump
Coaching at the youth level can be a different animal from coaching at the top tier where veterans can pose more challenges but Rodriguez doesn’t believe that will be an issue for Paunović. “He can handle it because he is incredibly thoughtful, and incredibly detailed in his thinking of how players need to be led, how players need to be coached, and how teams need to be built and developed. One of the most impressive things that arose out of the process of interviewing and spending time with Pauno was a little bit of a different way of thinking than I’ve seen from most other coaches, which is a commitment to individual improvement. We are going to embark on almost creating a business plan, if you will, for every one of our players. Those are going to be tied in together on how to build a winning team, and how to build a championship program. I am convinced that his interpersonal skills, and the clarity of his soccer message, would be well received by any player who has an interest in competing, being held accountable, and improving. I believe his effectiveness as a communicator, and the clarity and simplicity of his soccer message will be well received,” he said.
“It’s always a jump (from youth to senior level). I think it would be naïve to not think that there is a difference being in the room with what you would call a youth team, but I would call them young professionals, as opposed to being with more veteran professionals. Keep in mind that the U20 Serbian team was filled with professional players who are competing on various teams throughout Europe. They’re still professionals. He has experience in a lot of different locker rooms, and in particular big teams under big pressure such as Atletico Madrid. He can handle it.”
Leading Serbia’s U20s
Paunović’s most impressive accomplishment as a coach came this past summer at the helm of the U20 World Cup Champions. That milestone obviously played a big part in landing him his first chance to guide a club side.
“He’s a Word Champion. Not many coaches worldwide can say they’re a World Champion at any level. I’ve known Pauno for years, and I knew him during his journey of assembling that team. We used to speak frequently about that, and I was always impressed with how he went about managing that group and building that group. I was privy to some of his team building activities and thought that they were innovative and obviously quite effective. When I look at his work with Serbia, I’m also really impressed with the character that team displayed. I believe that they did not receive a red card in the tournament. I believe they were one of the teams with the fewest yellow cards in total. He believes in sportsmanship. He believes in fair play. I want all of soccer to move away from the dark arts. He is resourceful, adaptable.”
Rodriguez also cited that team’s ability to continue on successfully after losing the first match of the tournament. “To advance through the last four games either in extra time or in penalties demonstrates a group that had tremendous mental resolve, which I believe is coached and can be improved. His work with Serbia was important to me and any time you can hire a coach with a winning pedigree you stand the chance to have that repeated.”
The move isn’t your typical “Euro coach to MLS” hire because of his experience as a player in the league and Rodriguez thinks the next phase of MLS growth will include top international coaches, as well as players looking to make a move stateside.
“I believe that MLS is transforming itself at an incredibly accelerated rate. We are a global league that now has global demand. I think that Pauno’s international perspective plays well into that. Not just for today. I think his familiarity with the league and his knowledge of the league handles today, but this is a man who is a real student of the game who has been spending his time, even when he was a player preparing for this moment. Earning not only the UEFA coaching degrees, but the degrees and certificates associated with becoming a Sporting Director. Major League Soccer has now unequivocally been attracting some of the top talent in the world and has established itself as a league of choice among players worldwide. Pauno’s selection of Chicago Fire is the first indicator that we are now a league of choice for great coaches worldwide. I feel not only good about our present with Pauno, but with his approach to learning and his open mindedness, I believe that we are set up for a nice, long run.”
When asked what other traits set Paunović apart from other candidates, Rodriguez expanded a bit more on what the Fire were looking for and how the candidates were considered.
“We were very disciplined in our process. We were very detailed in how we set it up in the eleven characteristics that we were going to rank higher than some others. We were very deliberate in ensuring that we had an expansive candidate pool. I was surprised a little bit at the solicitations that we received in the process from worldwide candidates whose pedigrees are well known and winners in the own right. That was supplemented by an excellent, you could call it, domestic pool of candidates. As I suspected, there were a good number of candidates that we thought were excellent coaches and would be excellent coaches in Major League Soccer, but Paunović did distinguish himself. Over the course of the process we found ourselves grading other candidates against Pauno. He consistently kept scoring highest on our board, if you will. All signs kept coming back to him. In the end, we just felt we had the right man, at the right time, under the right circumstances. Other candidates at a different point in time, or perhaps without him in the mix, might have gotten the nod quite frankly. There were times in our process where we ran the risk of losing him. Panathinaikos, a Champion’s League club, and one of the two great clubs in Greece, offered him a job while we were in our process. We chose not to react to that. We chose to see our process to its conclusion. We knew the risk involved that we may lose him as a candidate at that time, but in the end it’s all come together and I think it’s a testament to the methodology and the discipline that we’re looking to instill in our decision making process.”
As for those traits.
“It starts for me with values, and Pauno is a values driven man. He is positive. He is respectful. He is passionate. He has great integrity. He embodies the spirit of our club and the spirit of the City of Chicago. That is warm, welcoming, and attentive. His ability to teach and his recognition that each individual learns slightly differently is important. He understands that some guys are visual learners, or audio learners, that some guys need to be spoken to often, or that some guys need to be left alone. His ability to teach and inspire was important. Resourcefulness. He was given a lot at Serbia, but perhaps not even as much as he’ll be given here. We spare no resources. We are fortunate enough to have an ownership group that has put no barriers and limitations to what we can do and what we need to do. I suspect he’ll even become better with more resources, although we still want him to become adaptable and not lose that skillset. He’s a great manager of people, process, and priority. He is highly organized and detailed and I think that is crucially important for the modern coach. Particularly, while the focus is always three points on Saturday there is always many competing interests. He’s energetic and that is something that we sorely needed to infuse in our locker room and through our leadership. Someone with enthusiasm. Someone who breathes football, teaching, and winning. This is the essence of the man. I’ve spoken about his familiarity with the league and I’ll mention his being global. In some regard, he was our only truly global candidate. While we had some other international candidates, they were not quite familiar with the league. (They) had not played in the league and were not in tune with Academy players and the system. Paunović spanned the entire globe of soccer. We preferred a candidate who had prior head coaching experience, and while we acknowledge it wasn’t necessarily at the pro level he did have it and he had in the cauldron of pressure of having to qualify for a major tournament, compete in that tournament, and then the pressure of winning that tournament when reaching the final. Composure and poise – I think the media will grow to love him because he is respectful and open. Lastly, although one of our top characteristics, he has a hunger to succeed. This is a man who had the opportunity to go Champion’s League as a coach already, but he thought the Chicago Fire was the best opportunity in the world. We wanted that. We wanted someone who wanted the Fire more than they wanted a job in MLS or wanted the opportunity to be a head coach. Far and away he exhibited that desire to be here and part of this project
Brian Bliss is still on board and Rodriguez alluded to giving him time to work with the new coach, possibly to gauge how well the two work together.
“Brian employee of Chicago Fire and he remains a valued employee,” he said. “I think it’s important and I appreciate the opportunity to thank Brian. He is a good soccer man and he has been a good and loyal employee of Chicago Fire. We will continue to utilize Brian, and we’ll allow him the opportunity to get to know Pauno in a firsthand way.”
Rodriguez noted that Paunović will have considerable input on roster decisions, although he will be involved to some extent.
“I believe the construction of the roster needs to be a collaborative effort. Ultimately, you have to provide the coach to have the opportunity to have the team that he believes gives the group the best chance to succeed. The times where I may assert greater authority would be if I believed that there were a greater interest for the long term over the short term. I believe that part of my role is to ensure that we are building a sustainable championship model. I think it’s naïve to think that you’re always going to agree on everything. I’m very confident in our ability to work through disagreement in a constructive fashion. He will be given the first choice, if you will.”
Turnover and goals
Those decisions will almost certainly see some substantial changes in the roster with several high priced veterans likely set to move on. Paunović doesn’t have much time to work through those alone so he’ll rely on what remains of the technical staff as those decisions are made.
“One of the difficult things for Pauno in evaluating the group is he doesn’t know the men. He knows the players but he doesn’t know their characteristics as people. I think one of his great strengths is his ability to connect with people on an individual basis, inspire them, and work with them to improve. That’s the one area where I wish we could have more of a runway going into the season and more of a runway into making player decisions than we currently have. Having said that, he relies and is confident on the input that Brian (Bliss), Logan (Pause), Larry Sunderland, and I can provide him as we flesh out our views of the players, and how they are as people. The amount of turnover, we’ll determine that in the next few days as we make these decisions. I know that Pauno believes that there is enough there for this team to be better than it was. The goal of any offseason is to improve and we’ll work to do that. We’ll identify what we believe are our current gaps in the team, and then we’ll work to fill those gaps in a very systematic and disciplined fashion.
Wait and see
Rodriguez acknowledged that fans are going to be skeptical given the run of results and long list of changes to the technical staff in Chicago over the last six seasons but change brings optimism.
“I have no right to ask the people to believe. All I can do is ask the people to do is to give us a chance to work our plan. Their belief will come, or not, based on our results. I understand the nature of today’s sports society that is highly immediate. While I believe that we can make significant improvement in the coming year, as opposed to this past year, it is all a process. I feel fortunate to have Pauno understand, and agree that it’s a process, and we have an ownership group that understands that it’s a process. What we’re trying to build here, as I said a bit over a month ago, is a program. One with a solid foundation and one that will stand the test of time, and stand those moments when everyone around us may think that it’s coming down but actually it won’t. The only thing I can ask, and again it’s up to our fans and partners to agree to or not, is just to give us the opportunity to explain our plan and work our plan. Over a fair amount of time, the results will become self-evident.”
Supporters need optimism, particularly over the last two seasons. The two worst in club history.
Paunović may provide a glimmer of that but now the work starts.