BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – The appointment may have come out of left field, but in Veljko Paunovic, new general manager Nelson Rodriguez is confident the Chicago Fire have finally found the “right man” to lead the club back to the top of the table.
A former Atletico Madrid, Real Mallorca, Rubin Kazan and Philadelphia Union midfielder, Paunovic was confirmed as the ninth head coach in Fire history on Tuesday. With names like Tab Ramos, Pavel Pardo, Guillermo Barros Schelotto and Kerry Savagnin linked with the position vacated by Frank Yallop on Sept. 20, the announcement of Paunovic came as something of a surprise to most in the Fire community, with Rodriguez readily admitting that the hire “was not an obvious choice.”
However, after leading the Serbian Under-20s to the World Cup title in New Zealand in June, the ambitious 38-year-old caught the eye of several European clubs, and turned down an offer from top Greek side Panathinaikos before deciding to test himself at a club he likened to a “hurt lion.”
“Soccer is a lifestyle that I live and preach my whole life,” Paunovic said in a statement released by the Fire. “I love this kind of challenge, where you have to build a champion by giving your best in every moment. I see the Chicago Fire as a hurt lion ready to unleash all its power."
Rodriguez spoke of his new appointment in glowing terms, describing him as a “real student of the game” and using words like adaptability, knowledge, confidence and resourceful as he presented some of the characteristics that set him apart from the rest of the many candidates considered.
And while there were several quality applications interviewed, Rodriguez revealed that the club’s thoughts kept returning to the Serbian and, ultimately, every other candidate had to prove themselves against him.
Despite the interest from Panathinaikos and his involvement with the Serbian youth and senior set-ups, the lure of returning to MLS and reigniting the Fire, both domestically and internationally, saw Rodriguez land his man.
“We were very disciplined in our process. We were very detailed in how we set it up in the 11 characteristics that we were going to rank higher than others, and we were very deliberate in ensuring that we had an expansive candidate pool,” Rodriguez said of the selection process he has conducted since joining the Fire on the day of Yallop's dismissal.
“Paunovic did distinguish himself and, 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,” he added. “All signs just kept coming back to him. In the end, we felt that we had the right man at the right time under the right circumstances.”
Paunovic enjoyed a lengthy playing career as a midfielder with an eye for goal, netting 76 goals in 358 appearances for clubs in Serbia, Spain, Germany, Russia and the US. His speedy rise to prominence as a coach began with the Serbian U-18s in 2012, before subsequently leading the U-19s to a third-place finish at the 2014 U-19 European Championships and the U-20s to World Cup glory in June.
His desire to succeed beyond his playing days was evident from early in his career, and he wasted no time in securing his UEFA PRO coaching license as well as a sporting director degree from the Royal Spanish Football Federation shortly after retiring.
“He has a hunger to succeed,” Rodriguez insisted. “This is a man who had the opportunity to go Champions League as a coach already, but he thought that Chicago Fire was the best opportunity in the world, and we wanted that. We wanted someone who wanted the Fire more than they wanted a job in MLS or more than they wanted the opportunity to be a head coach. And, far and away, he exhibited that desire to be clear and be part of this project.”
A speaker of six languages, Paunovic is also a big believer in the connectivity and openness of social media, and it will be interesting to see if he maintains such a public online profile (he's active on Twitter) under the gaze of the highly engaged Fire fanbase.
He is expected to be unveiled to the Chicago public next week, and will immediately begin the task of assembling a roster capable of challenging in MLS. Rodriguez also spoke about creating a “business plan” for every player and giving Paunovic the resources to get the players he needs to implement his plan and tactics on the field.
“I have zero doubts about his ability to adapt [to MLS],” Rodriguez concluded. “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.”
Shane Murray covers the Chicago Fire for MLSsoccer.com.