It only took two games for the #PaunoOut hashtag to recirculate on cf97 Twitter. That speaks to the reactionary nature of the Fire fanbase, but also goes to show the kind of start the Chicago Fire have made to the 2018 season. The team has lost two out of two, while conceding six goals in the process. The performances have been worse than the results, as the Fire have been lackluster throughout both matchups. The defense has been unorganized, while the offense looks lost everytime they go forward. The players haven’t seemed ready to start the year, and some blame must be put on the coach for that. Now, it seems the hot seat might just be beginning to warm up a bit.
With everything that had happened over the offseason, some have forgotten about the fact that Paunovic almost left Chicago in the winter. After qualifying for the World Cup, the Serbian federation fired head coach Slavoljub Muslin. Although he was successful in getting results, many felt his playstyle was too boring, and were peeved at his over reliance on elder players. At that point, Serbia was in a race to find a new manager before the start of the World Cup, and Paunovic became the early favorite to fill that vacancy in the eyes of the Serbian media. A national hero, who most notably lead the U-20 team to World Cup glory, the move seemed likely at one point. The Fire held press conferences with Panovic, as Nelson Rodriguez was adamant that the coach would be staying in Chicago for the foreseeable future. However, it didn’t seem like either man believed in those words. In the end, Serbia went with experience in hiring Mladen Krstajic, but it is safe to assume that Panovic would’ve taken the role if the offer ever came in.
Paunovic has had a rollercoaster ride of a time in his first two seasons in Chicago. His inaugural season saw the team finish last place in all of MLS, but he had Fire up to third place in his sophomore campaign. The regular season success was somewhat tainted in the playoffs, as a lackluster Fire team were thrashed 4-0 at home to the Red Bulls. He has done plenty of good so far, implementing a possession-based tactic that has lead to some impressive results. His emphasis on youth has set up the future of the Fire well, with Polster, Vincent, and Mihailovic all growing into very promising players under the guise of Paunovic. However, he has been far from perfect with some of his decision making. Paunovic was responsible for driving Sean Johnson out of Chicago, benching him in favor of Matt Lampson. This backfired, as Lampson gave up a countless amount of easy goals, while Johnson furthur grew into a quality keeper at NYCFC. Now, Pauno is stuck with Sanchez, who has failed to impress. Then, there was the whole Accam fiasco, which became a key storyline at the tail end of last season. Paunovic was named the coach of the MLS All Star team, and was in charge of picking the roster. He chose three Fire players to join Schweinsteiger, who was already voted into the team by fans. However, Pauno did not select David Accam, who had been having a career year up until that point. The Ghanaian felt slighted, and made his opinion felt on social media. This lead to Paunovic benching Accam in matches after the All Star game, further damaging the relationship between player and coach. This all played a part in Accam being shipped away to Philadelphia in the offseason, which was a controversial decision considering the impact the player had while in Chicago.
A potential factor that might keep Paunovic in Chicago is the lack of a suitable replacement available. Caleb Porter is currently unemployed after leaving Portland, but many assume he is waiting to take over a MLS bound Cincinnati team. Carlo Ancelotti has been a dream appointment for any team in the US after he was fired from Bayern Munich, but seems to be content with waiting until the start of next season before going back to a coaching role. For the Fire, there might not be a viable candidate available to come in until after the conclusion of the World Cup.
It is still hard to see Paunovic fired anytime soon. Nelson Rodriguez has plenty of faith in the coach, and will give him plenty of chances to right this seemingly sinking ship. The Fire have the weekend off, which should give some much needed time on the practice field to work on some issues. However, if things continue to fall apart, Rodriguez might be forced into firing Paunovic before it is too late.