BRIDGEVIEW, ILL. – Before joining the Chicago Fire, Veljko Paunovic led Serbia to a U-20 World Cup title in 2015, but on Wednesday the manager downplayed recent rumors that he might be heading back to lead Serbia at senior level for the 2018 World Cup.
Serbia, despite successfully qualifying for the World Cup, sacked their manager, Slavoljub Muslin, last week. Paunovic’s name was soon connected with the vacancy. On Wednesday, at the Fire's final media availability of the season, Paunovic said that while he had been in Serbia recently, he hadn't had any contact with the federation.
“I haven’t met with anyone,” Paunovic said. “I haven’t talked to anyone from the Serbian federation. I did go to Serbia for a different purpose, professional scouting trip and to see my family. But I also went to Europe, other countries, to do more scouting and that’s all I can say.
“What I can also say is that I’m very happy and when we came here we said that we are in a process, we are going to build a championship program and I’m very happy actually with the progress that we had. Like Nelson said the consolidation of this project and our style and the way we played and mentality, I think that’s something that I’m looking ahead to forge next year.”
When Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez was asked whether anyone at the Serbian federation had been in touch with him about the manager who still has one more guaranteed year on his contract, the GM said, “No. You shouldn’t believe all you read.”
Paunovic was named a finalist for 2017 MLS Coach of the Year after helping the Fire go from last place in his first season to a playoff berth in 2017.
“This is what I always said and I’m always going to repeat: I’m always focusing on what I’m doing now,” Paunovic said. “My purpose when we came here is to build a team that will be a championship team, that will win championships, and that will resonate in soccer in the United States with style with mentality and everything. I focused all my energy and my mind only on that. I think I have still a lot of things to do here and I’m looking ahead to the next season as a great opportunity for all of us to improve, for me too as a coach, and to fulfill my personal goal but the same goal that we all together share to have the Chicago Fire being one of the best teams or the best team in the United States. …
“In the future I don’t know what is going to come. I’m just focusing on what I have now, and what I have now is Chicago Fire, a huge desire to get better and to win. I want to see our team at the top of the league. I want to see our team, as soon as possible, next season, I want to see our team lifting the trophy. That’s all I have to say.”
Fire midfielder and US international Dax McCarty said that after one year working with Paunovic, he can see him managing at the senior international level someday.
“I think Pauno is a young manager who is constantly evolving and constantly learning,” McCarty said. “I think the good thing about Pauno is that he’s never satisfied and even after we win, he’s always looking at ways for us to get better and to improve and he’s constantly looking at things that he can do better. Which, I think as a young manager is crucial, you can never be satisfied. That’s a good quality that he has.
“In terms of the international stuff, I can’t really speak to his mentality or his mindset, but from what I know of him is he’s very ambitious. He wants to win and he’s got a hunger for winning that – everyone can say that they have but not very many people show that, and he shows that on a daily basis.”
Whether or not the Fire not lose Paunovic to this specific opening, Rodriguez knows that eventually the coach will move on, especially if the club continues to win under his watch.
“I said this when I announced Pauno, my expectation is someday someone will come and someday it will be right for him,” Rodriguez said. “I’ll be sad when that day comes but I’ll also have a measure of pride that we contributed to his moving on to some other challenges as well.
“Although,” Rodriguez said looking at Paunovic and joking, “you can wait.”