By Marco D'Onofrio
The Chicago Fire were the worst team in all of Major League Soccer this season, finishing the 2015 campaign with just 30 points. The team had an abysmal defensive record, picking the ball out of their own net a total of 58 times.
On Tuesday, the club that hasn't won the MLS Cup since their inaugural season in 1998, officially announced that changes have already started to be made, as they look to embark in a new direction. The Fire decided that the man who led Serbia to the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup championship, Veljko Paunovic, is the right fit to lead the club to a brighter future. Paunovic, takes over for interim coach, Brian Bliss, who replaced Frank Yallop at the end of September.
“I want to thank Andrew Hauptman, Nelson Rodríguez and the whole executive team of the Chicago Fire, for choosing me, among other great candidates, for the coaching position,” said Paunovic in a club statement. “I am very excited and enthusiastic to start working with the team, to meet the people and fans, who I know are very passionate and loyal to the club. This is the opportunity that I was looking for, to work with the right people, in the right time and the right place.”
“I have a huge amount of energy, knowledge and experience to deliver to our team and our community,” he added. “Soccer is a lifestyle that I live and preach my whole life. 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.”
Paunovic becomes the franchise's ninth head coach, and the first ever to be born in Europe. The tactician will have his work cut out for him in Chicago, with the club's fan base becoming increasingly frustrated in recent years. The team have qualified for the MLS playoffs just once in the last six seasons, missing out on the postseason for the last three consecutive years.
While the Fire will be the first club that Paunovic has ever taken the helm of, he built quite the reputation after his Serbian side were able to defeat Brazil 2-1 at the 2015 U-20 FIFA World Cup championship, to gift the country with their first ever world title as an independent nation.
Along with his time managing Serbia at the U-19 and U-20 levels, Paunovic, had quite the illustrious playing career. He spent time across Europe, featuring for the likes of Atletico Madrid, Mallorca, Partizan, Hannover, Getafe, Almeria, Rubin Kazan, and Tenerife. The 38-year-old also spent one season plying his trade in Major League Soccer, with the Philadelphia Union in 2011.
Despite only playing one season in MLS, having previous knowledge of the North American soccer landscape will be a massive boost for the fairly inexperienced coach. The league is very unique compared to any other on the planet, and many European tacticians have struggled to make the necessary adjustments in the past. It is no secret that all four teams currently remaining in the MLS playoffs have head coaches who once played in the league.
The Serbian's appointment came as a surprise to many, but it is desperate times for the Chicago Fire. At just 38 years of age, Paunovic is hungry to prove his worth as a manager and he may have found the perfect project to do so.