CHICAGO—Following the departure of Frank Yallop in September, Harry Shipp insisted the Chicago Fire needed a more “detail-oriented” man to succeed him as head coach.
And in the recently unveiled Veljko Paunovic, it is hoped the Fire have that in abundance: a man thorough in his preparation, his vision and his execution.
Introduced to the local media for the first time at the Chicago PrivateBank Fire Pitch Thursday by general manager Nelson Rodriguez, Paunovic exuded confidence, passion and conviction as he spoke about assembling an “adaptive” roster capable of making the Fire a playoff team once again.
“Everything is a process, and the first process now is building, finding the right players,” Paunovic said. “I have a clear vision of how the professional roster should be, and that means a clear vision of how many young players, how many young and expert players and how many veterans we need for the team.
“We need young players, players that we still have to develop in the coming years to be the future of Chicago Fire, and of course experts that will support all season and in all competitions and veterans that will be aligned with the vision, with the values and with the experience to transmit to those players in order to be sustainable.”
Paunovic led his native Serbia to a sensational U-20 World Cup final victory over Brazil in New Zealand in June, and his expertise and detailed preparation provided the platform for talented players to propel the team to unexpected success.
In a phone conversation with Shipp, the 24-year-old Homegrown Player came away feeling that Paunovic held a strong sense of the Fire's season, as well as Shipp's. That knowledge should help shorten the adjustment timeline for both player and coach, and has everyone enthusiastic about the direction.
“I’m excited for 1) a change in general, and 2) I think he’s going to be relatable to players as a teacher, which is something we need,” Shipp told MLSsoccer.com. “I think these past two years there hasn’t necessarily been a focus on teaching and when you’ve got young guys, when you bring new guys to the league you need to teach them and I think that’s something he’s going to be good at.”
Paunovic, who conducted interviews in three of his six languages (English, Spanish, Serbian, Macedonian, Russian and German), also talked about “changing the dynamic of the last few years” and added “respect, responsibility, enthusiasm and trust” to the Fire’s stated core values of “tradition, honor and passion”.
“I believe in people,” said Paunovic, who played for Atletico Madrid, RCD Mallorca, Getafe and Philadelphia Union, among 11 total teams. “I believe in a vision. I believe in Andrew [Hauptman, owner of the Fire] and Nelson’s vision of building a winning team and great club. I believe when the right people meet and have the same values, the same passion and preparation, everything is possible.”
Rodriguez, once again, spoke glowingly of his new appointment, but also outlined that structures being put in place to reap success on a consistent basis.
“We're really looking at this with a 3- to 5-year horizon to get there, and I believe that we will,” Rodriguez said. “We're going to build a championship program.”
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Shipp shared the ambition of earlier statements by Rodriguez and Paunovic, asserting that the Men in Red should be challenging at the top of the Eastern Conference table.
“Two years [as a professional] without making the playoffs, it’s been tough for me,” Shipp said. “I think at an absolute minimum that’s something every team in the league is going to strive for so I don’t think that’s saying a whole lot, but if we can get to the point where we’re challenging for the top two or top four in the East that’s something we want.
“It totally depends though –we’ve obviously got a lot of guys that are going to be on our team in a couple of months from now that aren’t currently on our roster,” Shipp added. “I have faith in Nelson – talking to him more than I’ve talked to coach – but talking to Pauno I’m confident in the type of player they’re going to bring in. Big names, not big names; I don’t know that, I can’t answer that. But I do know they have a vision for what they want in a player and are going to be able to execute bringing that player in.”