Chicago Fire midfielder Michael Stephens confident new coach Veljko Paunovic can help club return to playoffs

Michael Stephens - Chicago Fire - warm-up

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Under the stewardship of new general manager Nelson Rodriguez and head coach Veljko Paunovic, there appears to be an emphasis on accountability and performance across the board as they embark on their quest to return the Chicago Fire to former glories.

Rodriguez has wasted little time stamping his authority on proceedings at Toyota Park, clearing most of the technical staff before Chicago declined the options on league veterans Mike Magee, Jeff Larentowicz, Lovel Palmer and six others for the 2016 season.

While some of those players may be retained on revised terms, the bold decisions suggest that Rodriguez and Paunovic will be setting the bar higher than it has been in their recent, underperforming years. Versatile midfielder Michael Stephens is one of nine players already under contract for 2016, but the Chicago native admitted the significant changes seen in recent weeks are an understandable reaction to last season’s disappointing, last-place finish.

“Any time things don’t go that well, as we’ve seen already with different staff moves, you can expect change,” Stephens told by phone from vacation in California. “It’s the same with the players. We’ll have a clear system, and I’m sure he’ll get guys to fit into that system, so we’ll see how that plays out over the next couple of weeks with the various drafts and people’s options and things like that.”

Harry Shipp, Matt Polster, Patrick Doody and Kingsley Bryce were the only players on whom the Fire exercised options, leaving them with a current roster of 13 players as Rodriguez and Paunovic look to assemble a new squad.

“I think Nelson, coming in, wants to show there’s a level of accountability,” Stephens added. “He’s watching everyone, seeing how he thinks they’re performing and taking action and trying to make changes, and I think that’s the only way to improve. I think it just goes to show there’s a sense of accountability with the new guys coming in and that people need to perform in every area, including the players. It sets the precedent that people need to perform or else you’re not going to keep your job.”

With a mammoth rebuilding job ahead for Paunovic, Stephens believes the Serbian U-20 World Cup-winning coach is the right man to revive the Fire’s fortunes on the field, even though he knew nothing about him initially.

“I didn’t know anything about him before the announcement, but since then I’ve done some research,” Stephens, the former LA Galaxy and Stabaek player, added. “I’ve talked to a couple of guys that played with him, as well as spoken to him, and I’ve also looked up some of his work on his YouTube channel where you can see how he runs a training session.

“It looks like he’s a really organized guy, it looks like he has a style of play, and from talking to him on the phone, he’s going to hold the players accountable. He seems very enthusiastic about what he’s doing and really excited, and he has a lot of core values that he believes in that I think are really going to help us improve this year.”

How significant that improvement will be only time will tell, but certainly a return to the MLS postseason is the baseline for most teams, even in the first year of a coaching regime. Stephens, for one, is confident that with the right acquisitions in the coming months, bolstering existing talent like Sean Johnson, David Accam, Gilberto, Shipp and Polster, the Fire can be a force to be reckoned with once again.

“I’m really optimistic (for next season),” the 26-year-old enthused. “If you look at this past season, we lost a ton of games but, first of all we weren’t getting blown out in any of these games. I think we do have some talented players, I don’t think we are that far off from that standpoint. I think we definitely have the ability to get more pieces and get on the same page here, and I think that we can turn things around and hopefully be a playoff team next year.”