Veljko Paunovic - Nelson Rodriguez - Chicago Fire - MLS Combine

FORT LAUDERDALE, Florida – Before he was hired as the Chicago Fire’s new head coach this offseason, Veljko Paunovic spent three years working in the Serbian youth national team program.

By any measure, the former Philadelphia Union and La Liga midfielder was wildly successful in his home country. He led three different age groups in three years with the Serbian federation, leading the Under-18s in 2012-13 and the U-19s in 2013-14 before graduating to the U-20s in 2014-15.

That last post paid off with a major championship, as Paunovic led the U-20’s to the World Cup title in New Zealand last summer, knocking the US out in the quarterfinals before eventually parlaying his success into the Fire job in November.

He walked into a gnarly situation in Chicago. The Fire finished last in the league in 2015, and have had a slew of veterans leave the club this winter. Captain Jeff Larentowicz signed a free agent deal with LA, longtime Fire stalwart Patrick Nyarko was traded to D.C. and reports have 2013 MLS MVP Mike Magee, another free agent, close to re-joining the Galaxy.

Chicago currently have just 14 of 28 roster spots filled, and the players that are signed are very young. Defender Eric Gehrig is the group’s elder statesman, having just turned 28 on Christmas. No one else on the roster is older than 26, with the average age of the group clocking in at just 23.78.

Not that that’s a problem for Paunovic, who has clearly had plenty of success on the youth stage. He understands that coaching a professional club presents a different set of challenges than guiding a youth national team, but he thinks he can apply some of the lessons he learned in Serbia to help turn some of Chicago’s promising youngsters into long-term building blocks.

He doesn’t have a magic bullet for youth development, just an approach grounded in consistency and tailored to each individual player, regardless of how young they are.

“We always start with the person, and we always start with the values,” Paunovic told on Friday at the 2016 MLS adidas Player Combine. “From that point, we work with the player, we improve the player, we select the player, we give them service in order that he can be the best he can be. Every player is a project, and I don’t think that it matters what age they are. The approach must be different for each of them.”

While turning around the Fire will no doubt be a tall order, the cupboard isn’t exactly bare in Chicago, either. They have an established goalkeeper in Sean Johnson, an exciting Designated Player in David Accam and a pair of budding midfield talents in Harry Shipp and Matt Polster.

Paunovic and new general manager Nelson Rodriguez will add to that group in the coming days, including in next Thursday’s MLS SuperDraft, where they have the first, 33rd, 57th and 62nd overall selections. Paunovic also said on Friday that the team is “very close” to finalizing deals for several new players, and indicated that the team will bring in some veteran players before preseason opens on Jan. 25.

Regardless of who else they bring in this winter, if Chicago are to improve upon their disastrous 2015 in the coming seasons, players like Polster and Shipp will have to take the next step. Paunovic plans to get them there, building his new club and his young players with hard work, dedication to his process and a little bit of love.

“Coaches, we have to love players, love the player as an ideal,” he said. “The point is that it’s a process, and you have to love the players and love the process.”