Say this for new Fire coach Veljko Paunović:
He knows what kind of challenge he’s accepted.
“I have a huge amount of energy, knowledge and experience to deliver to our team and our community,” Paunović said in a news release Tuesday when he was announced as the Fire coach. “Soccer is a lifestyle that I live and preach my whole life. I love this kind of challenge, where you have to build a champion by giving your best in every moment.
“I see the Chicago Fire as a hurt lion ready to unleash all its power.”
The Fire are indeed a “hurt lion.”
While MLS is looking forward to the second leg of its conference championships, the Fire are trying to once again rebuild after finishing last in the 20-team league. They’ve missed the postseason in five of the last six years and haven’t figured out how to regain their once-lofty place in American soccer, frustrating an increasingly angry and impatient fan base that’s tired of a revolving door of staffs that bring big talk but no results.
“I have no right to ask the people to believe. All I can ask the people to do is to give us a chance to work our plan,” general manager Nelson Rodriguez said during a teleconference Tuesday. “Their belief will come, or not, based on our results.”
Paunović, 38, had coached Serbia’s Under-20 team since 2012 and has credentials that make him look like an intriguing and high-ceiling choice.
He coached his native Serbia to the Under-20 World Cup title this year, speaks six languages and played all over Europe before finishing his career in 2011 with the Philadelphia Union. Perhaps most importantly, he has the teaching experience Rodriguez was looking for despite lacking any time coaching in MLS, a league known for its quirky roster rules and regulations that has seen foreign coaches struggle.
But as Rodriguez noted, Paunović played in MLS and knows the challenges players face in a league that spans four time zones and many different climates. Rodriguez also said that during the interview process, Paunović had notes and video of MLS players and teams and even knew about Fire academy players in college.
“I have zero doubt about his ability to adapt,” Rodriguez said.
Until Paunović and Rodriguez (and chairman Andrew Hauptman) deliver, Fire fans will have their doubts. Rodriguez knows that, but also wants time for his plan to produce a resilient and long-lasting program that brings success.
“The only thing I can ask, and again it’s up to our fans and partners to agree to or not, is just to give us the opportunity to explain our plan and work our plan,” Rodriguez said. “Over a fair amount of time, the results will become self-evident.”