For Veljko Paunovic, learning doesn’t just apply to the dozen or so players in camp with less than one year of professional experience under their belts. The Fire’s new head coach is planning to take in training sessions and upcoming matches to continue his own soccer education. “If anyone thinks that he knows everything he’s wrong. I would say for me, the same. I always want to learn. I learn from the players. In every practice I learn from the players. In every game I learn from the players and I learn from the opponent and other coaches. I think I have a lot of things to offer to the players in order for them to reach their full potential,” said Paunovic after the team’s first practice on Monday morning.
A common thread among players following that first session was the new staff’s attention to detail, preparedness, and sense of organization. “I think they were very receptive. They really wanted to learn, and I’m very grateful for that,” said Paunovic of the optimistic first day vibe. “It’s the attitude that we demand. That they want to learn and pay attention on details. What we are teaching is our style of play from the global perspective and they have to very focused and open to learn.”
That style of play hasn’t been defined into one particular system or category. Paunovic has trumpeted an “adaptable” or versatile agenda that will give the team some flexibility against various opponent schemes.
“We want to learn and teach, but first we have to understand how we want to play from the global point of view. We want to be very prepared from the technical, tactical level, physical level, and mental level. That means it’s a huge job, and we’re just starting. In order to play (an) adaptable style, which I said before, we have to do those kinds of things. I’m sure we’re going to build a winning team but it’s going to take time. How we’re going to play is going to depend on the opponent. It’s going to depend on how we want to surprise or impose the style for that game. It’s going to be different from game to game. Sometimes we’ll play the same style in a row until we get to that point that we are prepared to play and switch from one style to another. From one system to another.”
The base system is something that will be established now in order to build on and find the right pieces to fit into an adaptable “style”. All of those pieces aren’t on the roster quite yet. The Fire are still looking to add at center back, center mid, and possibly right back this spring. The right midfield spot will also need to be addressed at some point.
“We want to start with 4-2-3-1. This is how we’re going to work but we want to have alternatives. In order to be adaptable we’ll have to work on alternative systems too. It’s not the system. It’s all about the players and the coaching. This is what we’re going to do. Teach and learn,” said Paunovic.
One evident difference between Paunovic and his predecessor, Frank Yallop appears to be a more direct involvement with direction disseminated to players during training. “It’s very important for them to learn my voice, and corrections. I think that the coach who doesn’t stop the session and correct is missing very important things to do. This is my style. This is how I work, “he said.
“In order to build our team and our style, we have to correct and talk. It’s not only before the session or after the session. During the session is the best opportunity to do that.”
Whether it’s the first or second year players or veterans, Paunovic doesn’t plan on changing his coaching style to cater to individuals. His coaching résumé only includes his duties with the Serbian national youth system but he doesn’t see an issue with translating that to the professional level. “For me there is no difference. It’s the same thing. I coach young players the same way that I coach the pros. Most of the players that I coached in the National Team were pros, even though they were young,” he said. “Every player has to learn. It doesn’t matter how old he is. He has to learn. The oldest can improve, it’s just a matter of attitude.”
The soccer operations staff supporting Paunovic includes two of his assistants with the Serbian U20 squad that captured that age group’s World Cup title last summer. Marko Mitrovic and Aleksandar Saric will provide familiar support that the coach likened to an old saying. “You can’t choose your parents, but you can choose your friends. I will say the same (for coaches). You can’t choose your parents, but you can choose your staff. I’m very happy with them. They are really, really enthusiastic. Great professionals. They have a lot of things to deliver, the same as I, to the players and to our club.”
Logan Pause has also seemingly forged a good relationship with Paunovic over the last nine weeks or so since his hire.
Time will go quickly as First Kick approaches on March 6 and Nelson Rodriguez still has work to do to complete the roster. Several players which could be key starters have yet to be signed and potential starting left back Brandon Vincent is still with the USMNT camp. Paunovic didn’t want to focus on who may not be with the team just yet. “No excuses for me. We will work and I’m fine with that. That’s part of the game. That’s part of the soccer and how things work,” he said about the lack of a full roster at the onset of training.
The Fire will train locally for the rest of this week, with two-a-days beginning on Tuesday, before departing for Tampa next week. Paunovic declined to point to a date or time period for fielding a complete squad, instead indicating that whoever takes the field will be prepared.
“It’s a process. I can’t give you a timeline. We want to be ready from the very first start. We want to be ready to play with heart. To play with character and wanting to win. If we can prove that on the field, I know the supporters will be very happy with that. March 6 we’ll be ready to do that.”