Less than a year after leading Serbia to the FIFA U-20 World Cup championship, former Philadelphia Union player Veljko Paunovic was announced on Tuesday as the Chicago Fire's new head coach.
Paunovic, 38, helped the Philadelphia Union to their lone playoff appearance in his final professional season in 2011, netting three goals and three assists in 17 regular-season games, also starting the second leg of their playoff series.
Having made two appearances internationally for Serbia, Paunovic went into coaching after finishing his career with the Union, coaching Serbian youth national teams from 2012-15. His crowning achievement came in June, when Serbia (having beaten the US on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals) beat Brazil in extra time to win the U-20 World Cup.
“In the face of stiff competition from other global soccer clubs, we are extremely fortunate to have secured our first choice, Veljko Paunovic, as our head coach,” said Fire general manager Nelson Rodríguez, in a club statement. “We conducted a thorough search process and, over its course, Pauno consistently graded highest across all of our desired characteristics. He is a champion, teacher of the game and man of great principle and integrity.”
In addition to his World Cup success, Paunovic had guided Serbia to third place at the 2014 UEFA U-19 European Championship. His squad finished on top of both of its qualification groups to reach the final tournament. Paunovic also worked with the senior national team, assisting with their organization and communication across all levels.
“I want to thank Andrew Hauptman, Nelson Rodríguez and the whole executive team of the Chicago Fire for choosing me, among other great candidates, for the coaching position,” Paunovic said, in the club statement. “I am very excited and enthusiastic to start working with the team, to meet the people and fans, who I know are very passionate and loyal to the club. This is the opportunity that I was looking for, to work with the right people, in the right time and the right place.”
Paunovic holds a UEFA PRO coaching license as well as a Sporting Director degree from the Royal Spanish Football Federation. He speaks six languages, including: English, Spanish, Serbian, Macedonian, Russian and German.
“I have a huge amount of energy, knowledge and experience to deliver to our team and our community,” Paunovic added. “Soccer is a lifestyle that I live and preach my whole life. I love this kind of challenge, where you have to build a champion by giving your best in every moment. I see the Chicago Fire as a hurt lion ready to unleash all its power.”
As a player, Paunovic enjoyed a long, successful career with 11 teams in Serbia, Spain, Germany, Russia and the US. He began his career with his father's club, Partizan Belgrade in Serbia, and his career was highlighted by a La Liga and Copa del Ray double with Atlético Madrid in 1996.
“Pauno and I have known each other since before he actually joined MLS,” Rodríguez said. “I know that he has been preparing himself meticulously for this opportunity. Having played in MLS, he understands the nuances of our league and is a supreme evaluator of talent. Combined with his international perspective, we believe that he is the perfect coach for the next stage of MLS’s evolution.”