What does Leto say, Piter?
PITER DE VRIES
Vendetta, he says, using the ancient tongue. The art of kanly is still alive in the Universe. He does not wish to meet or speak with you.
In the hope that we can begin this conversation without controversy, I propose that we simply stipulate that Chicago Fire manager Velko Paunovic is kind of a madman, accept it, and move on, the way one would with an arm’s-length relative.
Let’s not get hung up on that. It’s a simple matter of observation. On gamedays, Velko is an emotional powderkeg, eyes bulging, flamethrowers for arms, powered by a seemingly infinite store of high-octane rage. He communicates with expressions that run the gamut from I’m F--king Furious to I Killed Them All But It Was Empty As My Bloodlust Remains. So let’s just say this up front and get it out of the way - Velko’s Uncle Jimmy, back from the war but just wrong; he’s crazy, but he’s our crazy, and so pass the relish and don’t mention the war.
Unfortunately, sometimes the phantasms that imperil that uncle impinge upon our ability to just hang with it. Uncle Jimmy has a couple drinks, throws around some slurs and some punches - ok, Jimmy, settle down now. Uncle Jimmy pulls a weapon and orders his niece’s new boyfriend to leave the state - it’s time for a talk about Jimmy.
I’d propose that the Chicago Fire are, whether they know it or not, in this latter place with Velko - his vendettas and the animus that drives them have gone beyond inconveniences the club can ignore.
Velko’s vendettas happen in public
Every season, Paunovic manufactures a conflict with a leading talent on the roster - in 2016 it was Sean Johnson, in 2017 David Accam; this year’s target remains uncertain. There is nothing subtle about the process, which happens almost entirely in public and seems designed to unsettle a confident player. It starts with oddly against-the-grain comments about the player’s ability, picking hard at the weaknesses of a player who is obviously the best in his position on the roster. It will proceed to benching the player, putting the player up for sale, and moving the player on.
There’s no way for a player to just put their head down and ignore this. If it stopped at griping in the media about prominent players, it would be an oddity the players wave away - but playing time is oxygen for professional footballers. No one consents to be strangled.
The way the Fire have dealt with these conflicts reveals more about their priorities than is comfortable. Both Johnson and Accam wanted to move overseas, and each would have garnered interest - but MLS’ odd rules about transferring players overseas, where the league gets a healthy cut of the transfer fee and only a portion of what’s left can be applied to payroll expenses, means the club can often get more payroll relief by making an all-funny-money deal within the league. In other words, the Fire have consistently treated these star players as assets, not people, once their manager had done his level best to destroy their confidence and reputation; in so doing, they made our conference foes stronger.
The stink of denial about these vendettas hangs over the Chicago roster to this day, as neither Johnson or Accam were ever really replaced - because we didn’t need them, right? Velko said so! The Milkman moved on to NYCFC, where his ‘questionable distribution’ (improved through actual coaching!) is an absolute lynchpin for the most determined possession team in the league, while the Fire have suffered through a selection of B-minus try-hards. Accam’s tactic-shredding pace and trickery have been replaced by draftees and a loan signing, Aleksandr Katai, who just might be this year’s vendetta … yeah.
We’ll never get anywhere if we act like this isn’t happening. Crazy Uncle Velko needs some minding.