When the Chicago Fire take the field on Friday night at Toyota Park (7 p.m. CT, UniMas | TICKETS), they’ll be welcoming an opportunity to make amends for a lopsided defeat suffered 22 days prior. Being the competitor that he is, Veljko Paunovic is embracing that second chance.
“The game we played in D.C., that wasn’t us,” he said. “I’ve said that before. Now it’s a great opportunity to prove what we say. Now we have an opportunity to show that was just an accident of the season and the overall situation and circumstances we were in at that point. Now we have a great opportunity to change that.”
The game Paunovic is referring to is a 6-2 defeat his side endured in the nation’s capital the last time these two teams met on Aug. 27. After playing shorthanded at 10-men for nearly 60 minutes due to a first half Khaly Thiam red card, the Fire were left stretched against their Eastern Conference rivals. Paunovic is convinced that getting focused for this particular matchup in the series shouldn’t be difficult.
“On the individual side, everyone has to motivate,” he said. “If I were a defender, I would motivate myself by just saying (D.C. forward Patrick) Mullins cannot score more goals, or the other guys. Of course (D.C. midfielder Luciano) Acosta can just dribble so easily and go through. I’m going to win my individual war on the field.”
His team will be boosted by strong individual performances of late. Forward Michael de Leeuw has rounded into form after joining up with the team in July, having scored in each of the Fire’s last three matches and adding two assists to boot.
“Michael’s performance is very important,” Paunovic said. “When we did scouting and we analyzed his style of play and talent, we saw very quickly that he’s very good at moving in the box, moving off the ball, and of course converting opportunities. That’s why we believe that he’s going to be a great fit for our team, which he confirms with great motivation and great attitude that he has in every single game.”
The play of Matt Polster and Razvan Cocis as a midfield tandem in the last two outings has been a high point for the coach as well. Cocis has been afforded the luxury to slot deeper into the team’s central channel as of late due to de Leeuw’s abilities to hold down a spot between the midfield and forwards.
“During the whole year we were looking for the right fit in our midfield,” Paunovic said. “I think in the last games, both of them were performing very well. It’s a constant workout and a constant improvement for the team and for every single individual on our roster."
The fact that Polster and Cocis are two of the first year head coach’s most tenured players in Chicago is a boost to their connection as well.
“When they play together, they understand,” Paunovic said. “They’ve known each other for a long time now, for two seasons. You can see that, that they perform and the team performs with a more calm way of playing, more confident. That’s something that is helpful.”
Paunovic will be looking to pull it all together and end his team’s three-match homestand on a positive note come kickoff on Friday. With his team’s relative run of good form lately and what is surely a bad taste left by their last outing in D.C., Paunovic’s focus is clear.
“Just after playing a couple of weeks (ago), your sensations, your feelings are still fresh,” he said. “I think from the motivational side of the team, now we have to perform and show a better face, show a better performance.”