Rookie Alex Morrell received a pass along the sideline before passing it backward to maintain possession for his team in the drill.
New coach Veljko Paunovic watched the sequence as he stood along the same sideline. He noticed something. Nothing seemingly major, but a small detail that could help the young midfielder from University of North Florida if he found himself in the frenetic pace of real-game action.
The action came to a stop and as the rest of the team went to the center of the pitch for a water break and to prepare for the next drill, Paunovic pulled the rookie aside and demonstrated how to improve what just happened. "I know you're very good in 1v1, I've seen you," Paunovic said as he recreated the situation using Eric Gehrig and an assistant coach as the two defenders.
Paunovic showed Morrell that if he has positioned himself about three yards further up the field when receiving the pass, he would have avoided the double team that closed in on him. Instead of having to pass backwards to avoid the double team, Morrell would have been in a position to take on the defender further up the pitch in a one-on-one situation.
The quick lesson was just one example of how Paunovic remained hands on throughout the training session, whether it was jumping in on passing drills to encourage creativity or instructing to goalkeepers to keep moving when they receive a pass and not just freeze while deciding where to make a pass.
"The guys did very, very well," Paunovic said of the first practice. "They were very receptive. They really wanted to learn and I'm very grateful for that. ... Now what we are teaching is our style of play. They have to be very focused and open to learn."
The new coach has already endeared himself to both new and returning players. Harry Shipp said Paunovic has come in and applied a focus "that they didn't necessarily have before," plotting out the goals and details for the next six weeks of training. David Accam echoed Shipp's enthusiasm for the new coach, saying the excitement is evident in the players and technical staff.
"First day of training and everyone looks excited, everyone is happy to be here," Accam said. "You can see [the technical staff] is really committed to get something going."
Paunovic was a key reason veteran defender Michael Harrington decided to come to Chicago. As a free agent, Harrington said it was a pleasure to speak with multiple clubs and have the power to decide where he would play next. It was Paunovic, Harrington said, who really sold him on the idea of playing for the Fire.
"I have some really good conversations with Nelson and Pauno" Harrington said, adding Paunovich is sharp and organized. "It's very refreshing ... it's a fresh start for all of us and I think we can bond together through that"
Players spent the majority of training going through dribbling and passing drills in small groups, running from one station to the next. The session also included larger team drills focused on passing and keeping possession in the face of intense pressure.
Paunovic did say he will most likely deploy a 4-2-3-1, but wants to remain flexible in formation choices.
The team consisted of a couple trialists and some St. Louis FC players. The trialists included Benedikt Krug and Matt Lampson while St. Louis FC was represented by Parker Maher and James Musa. Open tryout winner Zach Bennett filled one of three goalkeeping spots with Sean Johnson currently at the national team camp. Here is the full roster:
GOALKEEPERS: Zach Bennett#, Sean Johnson*, Matt Lampson^, Patrick McLain
DEFENDERS: Jonathan Campbell, Patrick Doody, Eric Gehrig, Michael Harrington, Vincent Keller**, Benedikt Krug^, João Meira, James Musa+, Brandon Vincent*
MIDFIELDERS: David Accam, Kingsley Bryce, Joey Calistri, Razvan Cocis, Drew Conner, Collin Fernandez, Parker Maher+, Vincent Mitchell**, Alex Morell**, Matt Polster*, Harry Shipp, Michael Stephens
FORWARDS: Gilberto, Kennedy Igboananike
*Currently on international duty
**Unsigned 2016 MLS SuperDraft Pick
+Saint Louis FC player
#2015 Open Tryout Winner
The energy and excitement was evident on the first day of practice as everyone seemed eager and engaged. Many of the players already seemed loose and comfortable around the new coaching staff and vice-versa. It was a positive first impression and I encourage anyone who can make it to Friday's open practice to check out Paunovic in action.
One person who stood out despite being sidelined with rehabilitation work was Eric Gehrig. It was obvious the veteran would have liked to be in on the drills and was itching to get back to soccer and finish rehab. He specifically mentioned his dislike of swimming after at least a month straight of doing laps in the pool to keep up his cardio while his foot healed.
Despite persistent rumors of European center backs coming to the club and general manager Nelson Rodriguez's consistent claim that the center back position is the top priority in the international market, Gehrig came across confident and prepared to take on a leadership role left vacant by the departures of Jeff Larentowicz, Patrick Nyarko and Mike Magee.
"It's the way it goes. People are always going to bring in players. At the end of the day you let your playing do the talking," Gehrig said. "It's definitely motivational," he added of the potential increase in competition for playing time.
Rodriguez also addressed the media after practice and stayed the course with his plan. He said the club was still in discussions with European center backs and while the wait is frustrating for fans, it is a part of the process and not an indicator of failed negotiations.