Stejskal: Chicago's Veljko Paunovic looks to spark Fire after quiet window

Veljko Paunovic - Chicago Fire - yells during Orlando City match

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – The first half of their campaign was less than stellar, but the Chicago Fire were still firmly in the thick of the MLS playoff race and a contender to win the U.S. Open Cup when the secondary transfer window opened early last month.

It stood to reason that if they could fill holes in a few positions of need and reel in a couple of bigger signings, they’d have a good shot to make the postseason for a second straight year and win the club’s fifth Open Cup.

Fast forward five weeks and the picture has changed. The Fire have lost eight matches in a row in all competitions, bouncing out of the Open Cup with a 3-0 semifinal loss at Philadelphia last week and falling from seventh to 10th in the Eastern Conference. The gap between Chicago and sixth has grown from one point to seven; they’re now last in the East in points per game.

They’re not yet giving up, but with just nine games remaining, the Fire know they have almost no remaining margin for error.

“I think while there is a chance, we have to always try our best. But I think the only way to be realistic is if we have that mindset of the next game is the final,” Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic told on Tuesday. “Right now, it looks far, but if we are capable of winning two games in a row, get a tie, get points then you’re going to start to see – and you still have six games to go – then you’re going to see a different picture, a different feeling.”

If they do turn things around, most of the effort will have to come from the players who were around at the beginning of the summer window. Recent trades for Nicolas Hasler and Raheem Edwards and the returns to health of Michael de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic improved the squad, but they weren’t the big-ticket additions the Fire were looking for. 

It wasn't for lack of trying, though. Club president and GM Nelson Rodriguez, who wasn't made available for this story, told reporters last month that Chicago made “significant” offers for two European attackers. According to The Athletic’s Paul Tenorio, the club also negotiated with Mexico national team center back Hector Moreno near the close of the summer window. None of the targets ended up in Chicago, though the Fire were reportedly close to an agreement to sign promising 20-year-old attacker Amine Bassi from Ligue 2 club AS Nancy-Lorraine before the deal fell through at the last moment.

Though they did land a difference-making attacker in winger Aleksandar Katai in February – initially on loan using Targeted Allocation Money before signing him last month to a permanent deal that will make him a Designated Player in 2019 – they were also reportedly in pursuit of attacking targets Juan Fernando Quintero and Lee Nguyen in the primary transfer window.

“It’s never easy to sign players, you always have a lot of circumstances that you don’t control. So, at that point where you’re negotiating or other clubs step in, and I’m talking about teams from abroad for players from abroad, it’s very, very difficult,” said Paunovic. “So that becomes a little more difficult … but we also know that we have the team that last year could play very good soccer and compete in a good way. And I think that we just have to now, with the guys coming back, we have to get back to that as soon as possible.

“But my opinion is that you don’t expect that you’re going to fix everything in the market. You kind of have to mentalize that. If something happens in the market that’s perfect, that should help. If not, you have to know that you have to work with the group that you have and that’s it.”

What’s clear is that the Fire are behind the 8-ball in the standings. Combined with injuries to key players, it’s forced the club to lean heavily on unproven SuperDraft selections and MLS journeymen this season. The Fire just said goodbye to four such players, waiving veterans Kevin Ellis and Tony Tchani and sending rookies Elliot Collier and Diego Campos, as well as recently-signed defender Nicolas Del Grecco, on loan to USL clubs Indy XI and Tulsa Roughnecks FC last week.  

Their down year also comes as the Serb's contract is set to run out after this season. Rodriguez said last month that he wants “him to continue being our coach.” Paunovic said Tuesday that he “100 percent” wants to return to Chicago and that the two parties held contract negotiations recently and that he expects them to eventually resume.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, we were talking, and I guess we will continue talking, so we will see what happens,” he said. “I am focused more on the team and the next game and that’s it. We’ll see if that’s good enough. We’ll see.”

“Of course [I want to return], 100 percent,” he added later. “Even if I fix this year, my job is not done here. I have to win. Together with the team, I want to win the title all together.”