Fire fans will have to wait for another week or so to hear directly from their new head coach, so they can enjoy Thanksgiving and a few days of leftovers before the angst of yet another major shakeup sets in.
For its latest hire, Chicago has chosen Veljko Paunovic, a Serbian native whose MLS experience consists of one season with Philadelphia in 2011. He retired after that season and began coaching for the Serbian soccer federation and comes to MLS fresh off leading Serbia to the U-20 World Cup title in June.
To say the Fire has gone way outside the box assumes there was a box in the first place. In September, it fired head coach Frank Yallop and hired former MLS executive Nelson Rodriguez as general manager. Technical director Brian Bliss took over as head coach and the team’s 8-20-6 finish gave it the worst back-to-back records since the team started up as an MLS team in 1998. Yallop’s record in 2014 was 6-10-18.
During its coaching search such names arose as former New York City FC coach Jason Kreis, ex-Red Bulls player and head coach Mike Petke, U.S. international and U-20 head coach Tab Ramos, Sporting Kansas City assistant coach Kerry Zavagnin, former Fire player and Mexico international Pavel Pardo and former Columbus midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto. A few days ago it signaled the dawn of a new era by confirming goalkeeper coach Aron Hyde, strength and conditioning Coach Adrian Lamb, and head of scouting Trevor James had all been dismissed.
In a teleconference call with local and national reporters Tuesday, Rodriguez answered questions about the process and its result. Many answers were variations on the same theme: ‘Yes, we know what we’re doing.’
Few MLS fan groups have endured the extremes of coaching and personnel changes as those myriad groups loosely affiliated under the designation “Section 8,” where the most rabid aficionados gathered when the team played at Soldier Field. Since cutting ties with Dave Sarachan in June 2007, the Fire has gone international (Carlos de los Cobos and Juan Carlos Osorio), international with a former player and proven MLS track record (Frank Yallop), native son (Frank Klopas) and former player not a native son (Denis Hamlett).
In its first decade, Chicago employed just two head coaches: Bob Bradley and Sarachan. As interim head coach, Bliss is the sixth man to fill the position since Sarachan’s departure. Since it won the MLS Cup and U.S. Open Cup as an expansion team in 1998, the Fire has been to just two MLS Cup finals -- in 2000 and 2003 -- and lost both of them. It last reached the playoffs in 2012.
For the time being, Bliss is still aboard. Otherwise, the landscape is wide open for a big-city team that has more often than not been eaten up by smaller fish.
“As I suspected, there were a good number of candidates that we thought were excellent coaches and would be excellent coaches in Major League Soccer, but Paunovic did distinguish himself,” said Rodriguez. “Over the course of the process, we found ourselves grading other candidates against Pauno. He consistently kept scoring highest on our board, if you will.
“All signs kept coming back to him. In the end, we just felt we had the right man, at the right time, under the right circumstances. Other candidates at a different point in time, or perhaps without him in the mix, might have gotten the nod quite frankly.”
Paunovic was being courted by Greek club Panathinaikos during the Fire’s search, but Rodriguez rode out the process nonetheless. The GM is also not concerned about Paunovic’s lack of experience at any level above the U-20s, citing a playing resume that includes stints in Spain (Atletico Madrid, Mallorca, Getafe), Germany (Hannover) and Russia (Rubin Kazan).
“It’s always a jump,” says Rodriguez of taking over a first team after working at youth levels. "I think it would be naive to not think that there is a difference being in the room with what you would call a youth team, but I would call them young professionals, as opposed to being with more veteran professionals. Keep in mind that the U-20 Serbian team was filled with professional players who are competing on various teams throughout Europe. They’re still professionals. He has experience in a lot of different locker rooms and in particular big teams under big pressure such as Atletico Madrid. He can handle it.”
Rodriguez also believes Paunovic can handle all that is unique to MLS: travel across several time zones, radical climatic changes, altitude, artificial turf, not to mention the byzantine player-acquisition mechanisms and procedures that involve allocation money, discovery claims, various drafts, etc.
Input will be provided by Rodriguez, who formerly worked for the MetroStars and Chivas USA as well as in the league office, but most of the roster responsibility falls on the head coach. Yallop signed attackers Kennedy Igboananike, Shaun Maloney and David Accam as Designated Players as well as Brazilian defender Adailton; Maloney left in midseason and the team used Targeted Allocation Money to buy down the contract of Igboananike so it could sign former Toronto FC forward Gilberto off waivers.
It’s safe to say changes for 2016 will be significant and Paunovic will have final say.
“I believe the construction of the roster needs to be a collaborative effort,” said Rodriguez. “Ultimately, you have to provide the coach to have the opportunity to have the team that he believes gives the group the best chance to succeed.
“The times where I may assert greater authority would be if I believed that there were a greater interest for the long term over the short term. I believe that part of my role is to ensure that we are building a sustainable championship model. I think it’s naive to think that you’re always going to agree on everything. I’m very confident in our ability to work through disagreement in a constructive fashion. He will be given the first choice, if you will.”