The Chicago Fire’s season was effectively ended last night in Philadelphia. In the biggest game of the year, an Open Cup semifinal with a chance to host the final, Chicago crumbled in a way most fans have seen plenty of times before. The Open Cup run that the club had prioritized os now over, and it doesn’t seem like the playoffs are a realistic possibility anymore.
Something must change, and it should start with the club firing head coach Veljko Paunovic.
Obviously there are many other changes that should come at the highest levels of the club. There is a wide consensus among fans that owner Andrew Hauptman is careless and incompetent. A similar consensus holds that Fire president Nelson Rodriguez has been unable to bring in adequate players, and his heavy-handed attempts at “supporter relations” this summer have resulted in PR blunders and an alienated fanbase. Unfortunately, neither will be leaving anytime soon. Someone has to go.
In the wider context of the club’s dysfunction, it may seem unfair that Pauno will be made to fall on his sword for the mistakes of higher-ups. Yet the manager is not exempt from blame. Pauno has made plenty of mistakes during his time at the club. Most notable has been his failure to develop younger players, which is surprising given his success coaching at the youth levels. Across the board, both young and experienced players have regressed under Paunovic.
His stubbornness has been his biggest problem. While he’s tinkered with a number of different player combinations and tactical set-ups, the players are still largely constrained in what they’re allowed to do. He also sticks to his guns on questionable choices that clearly do not work, such as playing Brandon Vincent as a centerback. He keeps giving chances to players who don’t deserve it, and keeps others on the bench who should be on the field. He casually disregards the things that actually work refuses to be moved on the things that don’t.
It became clear very early on that Tony Tchani was not good enough, but Paunovic keeps picking him over youngsters like Mo Adams and Drew Conner. Last season saw Paunovic keep Matt Lampson in goal, which cost the team several points during a crucial stretch of the year. He’s made a similar mistake this season, taking too long to initially bench Richard Sanchez before bringing him back for the biggest game of the year (with predictable results).
Then there’s the fabled Pauno doghouse, which has seen plenty of Fire players ruined due to the manager not liking them.
The earliest, and possibly most damaging, example of this was former Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson. Despite of the better goalkeepers in the league— a fact borne out by his performances with New York City FC— Paunovic decided his distribution issues made him unfit for his team. Since forcing Johnson out, the Fire have started goalkeepers Matt Lampson, Jorge Bava, and Richard Sanchez. Meanwhile, Johnson continues to shine with NYCFC.
The next season Paunovic chose a new target— David Accam. While there were rumblings of interpersonal conflict behind the scenes for a while, things seemed to reach a crisis point when Pauno left Accam, one of the most exciting attacking players in the league last year, out of the 2017 MLS All-Star Team. When the player voiced his disappointment with the decision, Paunovic benched him for several games. Accam was just never the same when he came back, and his loss of form was a big reason for the Fire’s big slump at the end of the regular season. He hasn’t really delivered for Philadelphia, so it may well be that trading him for $1.2 million in MLS Funny Money was a good deal. But one can only imagine how different things might’ve been for him, and the Fire, if he was able to stay under a manager who knew how to get the best out of him.
2018 has followed a similar pattern. The year began with new signing and Accam replacement Aleksandar Katai being benched, finding himself in the Pauno doghouse after barely a month in the Windy City. Given how important Katai has been for the Fire this season, this bit of man management borders on malfeasance. Paunovic has also directed his ire and youth players and anyone who was at the club before he came in. Drew Conner showed some real promise in 2017 but has been stuck on the bench for most of this year. There were high hopes for first round draft pick Daniel Johnson, but he, too, has been left spinning his wheels.
To say nothing of players being constantly fielded out of position. Some of these decisions were forced, due to injury or lack of depth. But most of this positional tinkering is just indefensible. Players such as Diego Campos are moved around on a whim, making it hard for them to grow comfortable in their role.
All of this begs the question of whether Paunovic has lost the locker room. There are few indicators of an open revolt, but a quick scan of players’ faces and body language following a loss— of which there have been too many— suggests that their faith in the head coach is dwindling. Whatever Pauno is saying to them before games and at halftime clearly isn’t working.
With the USOC campaign over and the Fire second from bottom in the Eastern Conference, this is as good a time as any to cut bait with Paunovic. The club can easily name an interim head coach to shuffle the team along the last few games of the MLS season (plus the friendly against Bayern Munich). Meanwhile, they would get a head start on finding a permanent replacement ahead of 2019.
The extra time could give them a shot at some marquee names. Former Portland Timbers head coach Caleb Porter is still on the market. He’s proven himself as someone who can build championship teams in MLS and develop an entire organization. And as someone who relishes a challenge, the Fire could be just what he’s looking for.
Despite his stock taking a bit of dip after Orlando City and the end of his tenure at NYCFC, Jason Kreis could also be a good get for Chicago. He’s currently linked to FC Cincinnati ahead of their move to MLS, but there’s no reason the Fire couldn’t put in a competitive bid.
There’s also handful of managers in England and Europe that are on the market and could be lured here with the right pitch. Some fans are even holding out hope that Bastian Schweinsteiger could be convinced to transition from player to manager.
(Just please don’t bring in Bruce Arena.)
Although the season is effectively over, this is a critical moment for the Chicago Fire. The rebuilding has to begin now. And it must begin with a change on the touchline.