Coming off of his team’s emphatic 3-0 victory over the Philadelphia Union at Toyota Park on Saturday night, Chicago Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic made it clear Tuesday that his team is not resting on their recent run of success.
“Keeping our guys motivated and always pushing them forward in order to give their best performance is something that gave us the opportunity to be where we are now,” he said. “There’s still a long way to go and we still have to keep that performance, that approach.”
Paunovic meets with local media members via conference call at the beginning of each week leading up to a weekend match. When asked about it, the messages he delivers on his approach this season are usually consistent, almost repetitively so. However, in the light of his team’s second 3-0 win over an Eastern Conference playoff contender in a short span, it’s fair to wonder what may have sparked this sudden surge.
“I think in every conference call maybe I repeat things, but that’s what we are doing,” Paunovic said. “We are very consistent and committed to our plan and our values. We are working hard. We believe that pushing ourselves in every session, and every game and with the best possible approach in order to win all our games is something that brought us to this position.”
One element of Paunovic’s plan this season has been that of creating competition. While the Fire attack has come to life over the course of the last month due to a combination of Luis Solignac’s addition, Michael de Leeuw’s expanding role, the ever-present danger of David Accam, and other factors, Paunovic makes it very clear that no spot is guaranteed on his team.
“We believe that all our guys have to earn their spot," he said. “They have to perform from game-to-game, from practice-to-practice, and give their best like we always said. We are happy to have more options in attack and of course we will decide depending on the performance and the needs of our team…who and how we’re going to play. So far I think the guys are doing very well in the last five games, especially in attack, and that’s important. But like we always say, everybody has to prove himself in every session and every game. That’s something that we consider a lot.”
The Fire are riding a home unbeaten streak of 12 matches and a 2-1-2 record over their last five MLS outings. While Paunovic won’t be satisfied with that record, it has marked an undeniable upswing in his team’s performance and continues to give him confidence in his team’s direction.
“That approach that we’ve had since we started working together in the preseason and later, I think that proves what we are doing at this point,” he said. “Everyone being important and having the opportunity in training in every session fighting for your spot -- in every game fighting for your spot -- gives us a competitiveness on the field. (That goes) especially for the games that we have to make some adjustments and changes like in this case, so we can have competitive guys ready to play. That’s part of the plan that we have and part of the demand and the approach that we have since we started working together.”
The Fire will have their next opportunity to put their competitiveness to the test when Toronto FC visits Toyota Park on Saturday night (7:30 p.m. CT, CSN Chicago Plus | TICKETS). Despite reigning MLS Most Valuable Player Sebastian Giovinco being sidelined with a quad injury, Paunovic is not taking the challenge lightly.
“We believe that for sure Giovinco is an important player for them, but we know that they are one of the best teams in the league and in our conference, and they have resources to respond for that,” he said. “We know that it’s going to be a very difficult game. We know that they are very competitive. They are fighting for the first position. They are a team that is very consistent so far in the league, and we know that we have to be on our best in order to be competitive and win the game.”
As the Fire’s number of regular season matches remaining begins to dwindle, Paunovic knows that every point left up for grabs will be crucial to any sort of late-season push he and his team are hoping to make.
“There is a lot of games to play. We have a great opportunity in front of us starting with the next game, but of course (the remaining) eight games will be eight finals for us.”