CHESTER, Pa. – Playing your first professional soccer game in two-and-a-half years may be an overwhelming experience for some.
But for Veljko Paunović, who started Saturday’s game against Vancouver just five days after being signed by the Philadelphia Union, it was a perfectly comfortable experience.
“It’s not something strange for me,” said Paunović, 33, who officially came out of retirement last week. “I’ve played on so many teams, so I know what the team mentality is and I know how to be a part of a team. I just do what I do. All my life, I’ve played this wonderful game. I really enjoy it, and I think my teammates can feel that. It’s just about being who you are.”
For his first-ever MLS game, Paunović was satisfied, if not overjoyed, with his performance. Starting at striker alongside Sébastien Le Toux, the Serbian made a very nice through pass to Justin Mapp in the ninth minute but the Union couldn’t convert the opportunity. Philly couldn’t convert any other opportunities either, and left Vancouver with a stinging 1-0 defeat.
“In the first half, I felt very comfortable and good,” said Paunović, who came off in the 59th minute. “I’m very happy with my teammates; they received my very good. They were looking for me and gave me a lot of balls, and I also tried to help them. The only thing is we lost – that part is disappointing.”
Union manager Peter Nowak said he wanted to give his new acquisition some time in Vancouver so he could begin getting accustomed to MLS. The only thing he really debated was whether to start him or bring him in for the second half.
“I think he’s very promising,” Nowak said. “We’ll see how he will adjust to the speed of the game, and of course he’s not match fit. During the [upcoming] weeks, he will improve this. But for the first time, I thought he was pretty good.”
Paunović, who’s played for 11 different European clubs since beginning his professional career in 1994 and was last with Serbian side Partizan in 2008, knows he must improve to continue to earn playing time, especially considering how deep the Union now are up top.
“I feel better every day,” he said. “For me, it’s very important to feel confidence in my teammates and coach. That makes me improve quicker and work harder. I think I’m on my way.”
Even if he doesn’t see any time for this Wednesday’s home game against Sporting Kansas City (7:30 pm ET, MatchDay Live), Paunović is excited to see PPL Park from a player’s perspective. He was simply blown away by the two games he watched from the Union’s home stadium while on trial.
“It’s a fantastic ambience in the stadium,” he said. “I really wish that I can also be supported by these great fans like the other players. I’ll do my best to make them feel like that.”
Dave Zeitlin covers the Union for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DaveZeitlin.