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Average Isn’t Enough for Velkjo Paunovic

It May Be Time to Replace Paunovic

MLS: Chicago Fire at New York City FC Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Fire have a vibrant, rich history of success both on and off the field, as the community rallied around the early championship teams and fully embraced the club— relishing the Fire’s early achievements. In the twelve years between their inaugural season in 1998 and 2009, the Fire reached the MLS Cup quarterfinals in eleven of those twelve seasons, including three trips to the MLS Cup final in 1998, 2000, and 2003.

During those years, the club was led by a pair of managers who were able to get the best out of their players and achieved great success on the field. Coaching the Fire from their debut through 2002, Bob Bradley led team to the double during his legendary debut season. During his five seasons in charge, the Men in Red compiled a record of 76 wins, 48 losses and 15 draws, averaging just over 50 points per season. Notably, Chicago never finished a season with anything worse than a conference semifinal berth, even with an injury plagued final year in 2002.

Dave Sarachan replaced Bradley after the 2002 season, and went on to coach the team from November of 2002 until June 2007, when he was replaced with Juan Carlos Osorio. Chicago finished Sarachan’s first season in charge with 53 points in Sarachan’s first season in charge, reaching the MLS Cup final while also winning the US Open Cup and the Supporter’s Shield.

However, in the last nine years, the Men in Red have failed to reach double digit wins six times and have only reached the playoffs twice, getting knocked out in the first round both times. This era of mediocrity has been accompanied by lots of turnover and short leashes at the manager position, as five different managers have led the team during this time, usually lasting less than two full seasons.

In an effort to return to the glory days experienced early in the franchise’s history, Veljko Paunovic was brought in to turn the tide around as the coach, having proven himself as the Serbian U-20 coach. But that promise shown has seemed to dim and falter as the seasons continue. Following another disappointing stretch of games in which the Men in Red failed to pick up critical points against their mid-table eastern conference foes, Chicago sits outside of playoff position despite qualification being extended to top seven teams.

The Chicago front office has demonstrated numerous times in the past years that they expect greater performances than their managers have gotten out of the team, sacking both Frank Klopas and Frank Yallop after stagnation or slight decline after their first year. However, the same standard has not applied to the Serbian, who following a season that was disappointing by almost all measures, was rewarded with a contract extension to keep him with the team through the 2020 season.

After his contract expired, the club never explored other options, with Rodriguez in particular completely fixated on the Serbian, saying “I think Pauno has given us everything that we expect. We have complete confidence in him and his staff. I still believe that Pauno is a great coach and will be an even bigger coach in the future.”

Despite the Fire front office’s belief in Veljko, a simple eye test comparison of Paunovic’s and Klopas’ best season and the preceding and following seasons shows incredible similarities, with marked improvement in that best year, with regression the following year. However, the result for the coaches’ contract was markedly different, with Klopas being replaced by Yallop and Paunovic being extended.

Klopas and Paunovic

Coach Year W-L-D Points Standings Playoffs
Coach Year W-L-D Points Standings Playoffs
Klopas 2011 8-5-10 34 6th in East None
Paunovic 2016 7-17-10 31 10th in East None
Klopas 2012 17-11-6 57 4th in East Knockout Round
Paunovic 2017 16-11-7 55 3rd in East Knockout Round
Klopas 2013 14-13-7 49 6th in East None
Paunovic 2018 8-18-2008 32 10th in East None

This season, Paunovic has more offensive talent at his disposal than any of his previous Fire squads, with returning players Nemanja Nikolic, Aleksander Katai and Bastian Schweinsteiger being joined by a healthy Djordje Mihailovic, along with newcomers CJ Sapong, Nico Gaitán and Przemysław Frankowski. And yet, more often than not, the Men in Red look stymied while on the attack, linking up well in the midfield but fizzling out before any real threat emerges.

The Fire have been held scoreless in back to back games this last week, after only being shutout two times during their playoff campaign of 2017 and just five times last year. This team is too talented and too much has been invested in personnel upgrades for the this club to be stagnating and regressing in year four of Nelson Rodriguez’s three-year plan.

Another troubling statistic about the Fire during Paunovic’s time coaching is he seems unable to figure out how to game plan for opposing attacks in MLS. The Fire allowed two or more goals 21 times last season, up from 18 and 15 in the previous two seasons, and surrendered at least three goals on eight separate occasions.

A lot of the blame for this porous defense was put on a back line that needed reinforcements over the off-season, and a goalkeeper that wasn’t quite MLS ready. However, in just nine games this season, the Fire have already allowed three multi-goal performances, despite improvements at center back and in goal.

It’s a habit that is becoming too common-place; the Fire struggled to start the season well. The Fire front office that claims that they will, “Achieve their goals by building a team that makes [Fire] fans proud and adds to Chicago’s championship lore.” But how can they continue to support head coach like Veljko Paunovic despite the poor early results? The time has arrived for general manager Nelson Rodriguez to begin looking into coaching alternatives.