Veljko Paunovic - Serbia - U-20 World Cup - Hoisted by celebrating team
Chicago Fire/MLSsoccer.com

Armchair Analyst: Chicago Fire go foreign, but not really: Veljko Paunovic has already adjusted

It's axiomatic in certain MLS circles that "foreign" coaches struggle to get the job done in this league. But "foreign" in this context does not mean "person born outside of the US or Canada who has not received citizenship in either country."

It means "person with no experience in soccer north of the Rio Grande."

Oscar Pareja is Colombian, and he's been a pretty great manager in his four years running first the Colorado Rapids and now FC Dallas. Welshman Carl Robinson has given the young Vancouver Whitecaps direction and identity in his two years in charge. Both of those guys are foreigners to the countries where their respective teams play, but neither is foreign to MLS.

Pareja spent 7 1/2 mostly excellent years as the elegant and effective midfield brain for Dallas before moving on to build that club's academy; Robinson was a midfield destroyer first for Toronto FC and then for the New York Red Bulls from 2007-11, shifting seamlessly into an assistant's role with the 'Caps.

Steve Nicol, a Liverpool legend, was one of the most successful coaches of the 2000s with the New England Revolution. He didn't come to that team cold, though; he'd been in the US for several years, most of them spent as player/manager of the USL's Boston Bulldogs. He was familiar enough with soccer in the US that jumping into the fire with a then-struggling Revs team wasn't at all daunting, and in his first year he led them to their first MLS Cup appearance.

Now it's Veljko Paunovic's turn. The manager of the Serbia team that won this year's FIFA U-20 World Cup does not have quite as much experience in North America as Pareja, Robinson or Nicol, but he's not an MLS neophyte. He's no foreigner. The former Atlético Madrid striker finished out his playing career in 2011 with the Philadelphia Union, so he knows how an MLS locker room works.

To me, it looks like the Chicago Fire just made an excellent hire. 

While there's never been an official "Why do 'foreign' coaches struggle in MLS?" study done (how would you even do that, scientifically?), there are reams of anecdotal evidence. In talking to folks who have been in MLS locker rooms, the big one – and I'm going to paraphrase a sentiment that I've heard from probably two dozen MLS players, current and retired – is this:

"Guys who come in from other leagues are used to having the ability to go out and get new talent whenever they want. They don't understand the rules, but more importantly, they don't understand development is as important a job as coaching. They're used to writing off anybody who's 22 or 23 years old and isn't yet fully formed."

You are free to look at the above sentiment and see inherent weaknesses in the way players are developed here, and you're not wrong – there's a reason smart coaches like Pareja and Robinson are giving so much run to academy kids. But you should also have the flexibility to see that juggling all of the above is a necessary part of being a successful MLS coach.

Pareja's captain is Matt Hedges, who played four years of college soccer, while in Tim Parker, Robinson found a four-year college guy who looks like he'll be a 10-year starter in MLS. Pareja drafted Tesho Akindele, groomed Kellyn Acosta, Victor Ulloa and Jesse Gonzalez through the academy, and built his team around Argentine magician Mauro Díaz, all while helping develop Fabián Castillo into a Colombian national-team player.

Robinson, meanwhile, has coaxed steady, incremental improvement out of Kekuta Manneh and Gershon Koffie while giving meaningful minutes to academy kids like Russell Teibert, Sam Adekugbe and Kianz Froese, but still building on solid, proven veterans like Pedro Morales, Kendall Waston and Steven Beitashour.

It is a delicate balance, and as one former national-team player said to me, "You find more guys and different stages in their careers and development here than I ever saw in one locker room in Europe. Over there, everybody's been through pretty much the same thing. Over here, you have a 23-year-old who's never played a professional minute before, and he might be somebody you're starting."

Paunovic should be familiar with that dynamic (new club GM Nelson Rodriguez, who spent nearly two decades at MLS HQ, surely is). Paunovic clearly has some youth development chops, given his time with Serbia, and it's worth mentioning that even though that particular U-20 team was filled with giants, they tried to and generally succeeded in keeping the ball on the ground. He didn't settle for Route 1, even though it may have been easier.

Now he gets to write the new chapter for the Fire. They already have a good young core, and yes, it is typical MLS: A pair of four-year college players in midfield (Harry Shipp and Matt Polster); a Ghanaian international (David Accam) on the wing; a Brazilian DP striker (Gilberto); and a fringe US international (Sean Johnson) in goal.

He'll have to add to that core by any means necessary – getting the right guy with the No. 1 pick in the SuperDraft, signing the right Designated Player this winter – but he'll also have to make sure that Shipp continues to become more secure in receiving the ball. He'll have to make certain Polster, who should start for this team as a true No. 6 next year, continues to refine his reading of the game and understanding of when to be aggressive. He'll have to continue to hone the defensive instincts of Joevin Jones, lest the overlapping weapon continue to be a liability at left back. He'll have to decide which academy prospect(s) to sign and how to help them reach the game-day roster.

The developmental work, in other words, is not done.

The best coaches in MLS, regardless of their provenance, manage to juggle all of the above. The guys who've failed, irrespective of what it says on their passport, generally don't.

So it doesn't matter that Veljko Paunovic is foreign. What matters is that he knows what he's getting himself into.

Fire fans should be happy today. Paunovic may not, in the end, work out -- nothing is ever guaranteed -- but this hire is smart, and it makes sense. That really does feel like a new era for this team.

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