Veljko Paunović: Ex-Chicago coach steers Chivas toward Liga MX mountaintop


Veljko Paunović has found quick success during his first season leading Chivas Guadalajara, and it was all on display Sunday night.

His club scored two late goals in a furious finale to the second leg of their Liga MX Clausura semifinal with rival Club América, sparking on-field celebrations at Estadio Azteca. In those moments, midfielder Fernando Beltran leaped into the manager’s arms and shouted for joy.

“A muerte con usted!” Then, louder, “A muerte con usted!” With you until the death, Pauno, he said as the manager returned the embrace, rubbed the back of his player’s head and went on to find the next player to congratulate.

Chivas vs. Tigres

Ahead of the Liga MX final against Tigres UANL, former Chicago Fire FC boss Paunović has his team believing, fully buying into the ideas he’s worked to transmit since arriving last fall before the Clausura. 

And while all the focus will be on Thursday’s first leg and the decisive second leg Sunday in Guadalajara, Paunović’s success in his first tournament means he’ll soon see plenty of former friends and foes in MLS. Chivas have now qualified for the 2024 Concacaf Champions League and are in a 2023 Leagues Cup group with Eastern Conference leaders FC Cincinnati and Western Conference slow-starters Sporting Kansas City.

“The most important thing for me was that the whole team came out showing it has a tremendous character, a tremendous faith in what we do,” Paunović, who led Chicago from 2016-19 and played for the Philadelphia Union in 2011, said after Sunday’s match. 

“Today it wasn’t about tactics, it wasn’t how we set up, today it was the heart of those players and all the people who support us and work around us.”

Tactical adjustments

While it may have been courage rather than the chalkboard that keyed Chivas’ win in the semifinal series, Paunović also has gotten his tactics right to reach this position.

He started using a 4-3-3 formation like he sometimes did in Chicago, but eventually modified to a system without a traditional forward. Víctor Guzmán, who Paunović and sporting director Fernando Hierro brought from Pachuca in the winter, often is the most advanced player even though he traditionally is a creative midfielder. Other times, it’s Roberto Alvarado in the most advanced role, though the 24-year-old has had more success working as a No. 8 and finding spaces where he can also send a good final ball.

In addition to seeing Guzmán and Alvarado take the keys and run, Paunović is working on plenty at the training ground. Chivas have scored on eight set pieces this season, including the second goal at the Azteca when a quick pass allowed fullback Alan Mozo to smash in the equalizer, and they often run a play from the kickoff designed to create an early scoring chance.

That dynamism in attack has been the biggest change, with Chivas actually conceding one more goal in the Clausura regular season than they did in the previous tournament (Apertura) when finishing ninth in the table. Still, there is renewed enthusiasm at the back where the center-back pairing of Antonio “Pollo” Briseño and Gilberto Sepúlveda, plus Jesús Orozco Chiquete and Mozo on the outside, all are making a case for national team call-ups.

Paunović also has proven adept at overcoming absences this season, getting creative early in the year when star attacker Alexis Vega suffered a knee injury that kept him out for two months. He thought he’d get forward JJ Macías back from a June ligament tear, but Macías suffered another tear in February.

To fill the gap, the manager turned to a pair of MLS veterans. Former Nashville SC and Charlotte FC forward Daniel Ríos earned six starts between February and March, scoring in a 2-1 win over Pumas, and ex-Atlanta United forward Ronaldo Cisneros had started before the injuries, but took on a bigger role. Chivas ran off a seven-match unbeaten run that started to instill belief in the squad and get fans dreaming of a 13th league title.

Cisneros has continued to contribute, nudging the first goal of Sunday’s semifinal win over the line. Rios is seeing minutes, too, with 13 appearances including a late cameo Sunday.

Paunović once again will have to solve an injury issue if Chivas are going to lift the Liga MX trophy. Midfielder Carlos Cisneros suffered an ACL tear when going for a ball in the second leg against América and will miss the final, Leagues Cup and the Apertura.

History awaits?

For the team that fields all Mexican players, a former Serbia and Montenegro international may not have been the most obvious fit. Yet, thanks to his time in Spain as a player and fluent Spanish, plus his experience with leading Fire and with English Championship side Reading, Paunović was ready to help Chivas take the next step and become a title contender.

MLS fans know they’ll be seeing plenty of him with Leagues Cup and CCL on the horizon, but Paunović will feel most satisfied if he’s making one additional trip to the US, possibly to BMO Stadium on the outskirts of downtown Los Angeles. A Campeones Cup appearance against LAFC would mean in his first season as Chivas head coach, he won the team’s first title since 2017 when former San Jose Earthquakes manager Matias Almeyda pushed them to the 12th league crown.

“For me, it would mean so much because I’ve seen I’m able to inspire a great club and give them confidence to get the most from their talent,” Paunović said. “The last step, the biggest and most important, is still in front of us.”

From Chicago to Guadalajara, Paunović is back thriving in North America.