Veljko Paunovic isn’t bitter about getting dismissed by the Fire last November. Even though there were indications (taking part in the team’s Soldier Field announcement, signing highly touted midfielder Alvaro Medran) he might stay for a fifth season, the eventual firing didn’t shock Paunovic.
“I’m not new to this sport, to this business,” Paunovic told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I expected it, and there were signs along the way that I could trust my gut sense that this was about to happen and was going to happen. But no hard feelings, obviously. It’s part of the job.”
In four seasons in Chicago, Paunovic went 41-58-37. His job security immediately became a question when Joe Mansueto bought out Andrew Hauptman last September, and his tenure ended with the only playoff berth coming in 2017. In the U.S. Open Cup, a competition the franchise has won four times but not since 2006, the Fire never reached the finals and were knocked out twice by lower-division opponents.
When he was let go, Paunovic was under contract for one more year. He was Nelson Rodriguez’s lone coaching hire and came in after the Frank Yallop-constructed 2015 team finished last in the league. The rebuilt Fire again finished last in 2016, enjoyed a 2017 resurgence, then slid back in 2018. The 2019 team was talented but unbalanced and missed the postseason again.
At the time of his hiring, Paunovic said, “I see the Chicago Fire as a hurt lion ready to unleash all its power.” That scenario didn’t quite pan out, and he was relieved of his duties just before a transformative offseason for the franchise.
“I felt that we didn’t finish the job,” Paunovic said. “When I was asked after my third year, I said to myself and to the team and to the club’s management, we need two more years. The fourth year, which was one year later, everything ended. I think my [projection] was pretty accurate that we needed that — maybe because of COVID now it’s going to need a little more time — but we were on the right track.”
Even though he didn’t get that fifth season and never won the trophies he wanted to in Chicago, Paunovic has no regrets. He looks back fondly on his tenure with the Fire, still makes time to watch the team and wishes the best to Mansueto and his staff.
“I’m proud of my time,” Paunovic said. “I love the club. There’s an important and big space in my heart that will always follow the club. I wish them nothing but the best. We gave our best, and we will always be proud of that.”
He’s grateful to Hauptman and Rodriguez for bringing him to the Chicago area, a place he now considers a hometown and where his family still resides. Paunovic said “we did a lot of good things for the club” and has a “lot of gratitude and a lot of love toward the people” he worked with, including his coaching staff, players, support staff and the front office.
And though he acknowledges he didn’t achieve the greatest results, Paunovic looks back and sees that everyone was a family.
“When I look back to [the] Chicago Fire, my time there was very, very valuable,” Paunovic said. “I think I learned a lot.”
Paunovic is certainly applying those lessons now.
On Aug. 29, he was hired by English second-tier club Reading. Coming off a 14th-place finish during the 2019-20 season in one of the most uniquely challenging leagues in world soccer, Reading wasn’t expected to contend for promotion to the Premier League.
That challenge of managing Reading appealed to Paunovic, who had played all over Europe but never worked in England. Reading, meanwhile, was enticed by Paunovic’s résumé, highlighted by coaching Serbia to the 2015 under-20 World Cup title.
“It’s the right place to be,” Paunovic said. “I’m excited to work and give all my knowledge and experiences to the new project.”
That new project is off to an incredible start, one that could propel Reading to one of soccer’s biggest stages.
Despite a 3-2 loss Friday at Coventry, Reading is atop the division at 7-1-1 with 22 points. Through his first eight games, Paunovic was off to the best start for a first-year manager in the English second level in 20 years, establishing Reading as one of the -favorites to return to the top league.
Paunovic, however, said he isn’t thinking about advancement to the Premier League, which comes for the top two teams in the division as well as the winner of a postseason tournament involving the third- through sixth-place finishers. He said expectations are a double-edged sword and is focused more on managing the new expectations and the team’s environment, not promotion.
“That’s exactly what we are trying to avoid saying,” Paunovic said. “That’s exactly what we are trying to avoid getting dragged into. Our expectation is only our next game. To win our next game is the most important thing. It’s something that brought us to this point and that we will continue doing.”
While Paunovic has a lot going on in England, he’s still looking at the soccer picture in the United States. He’s confident that Major League Soccer is on the right path and that the United States has huge potential as a soccer nation.
The critical mass, Paunovic said, is there, and he said it’s important for all levels of soccer to have coaches who share their love and passion for the sport while continuing to learn the game. Though he’s still in England, Paunovic wants to maintain the relationships he forged in Chicago and keep building on them, helping any way he can by opening his network to anyone who wants to keep growing soccer in the United States.
“It’s an important thing that the United States as a soccer country keeps growing, keeps having a great network around the world,” Paunovic said. “I think I can help.”