Stejskal: Veljko Paunovic proving worth as Fire move into playoff position

Veljko Paunovic's Chicago Fire are just 6-7-5 and aren’t anywhere near the top of the table, but are outperforming all but the most optimistic expectations. Despite an offseason talent drain, a rash of long-term injuries to key contributors and a tough start, Paunovic has the Fire in sixth in the East ahead of a Secondary Transfer Window in which a major signing or two is expected at Toyota Park. His players deserve the bulk of the credit, but Paunovic’s ability to successfully tinker with his team from week-to-week has played a huge role in Chicago staying afloat before potential reinforcements arrive in the summer.

“When you have a lot of injured players it’s a little bit difficult, but we have our coach, and in my eyes, he’s doing it really well,” Fire midfielder Bastian Schweinstieger told MLSsoccer.com last week.

Chicago’s 3-2 home win against New York City FC on Saturday extended their unbeaten streak to five games in MLS and seven matches across all competitions. That run has come against tough competition. In addition to their win over fifth-place NYCFC, Chicago took out sixth-place Columbus and won at Supporters’ Shield leaders Atlanta, both in the U.S. Open Cup, earlier in their streak.

Unlike widely-respected MLS coaches that implement and teach to a strict system, Paunovic, who is out of contract after this season, has managed Chicago very much on a game-by-game basis, tinkering frequently with his lineups and tactics this season. He’s experimented with three-, four- and five-man backlines, rolled out one and two-striker formations and started Schweinsteiger all over the field, even lining up the legendary midfielder at center back in three different matches. In total, 17 Fire players have started five or more regular season matches already this year, the most in MLS.

The changes, which have slowed during the Fire’s unbeaten streak as Paunovic has mostly stuck with a 4-3-3 with Schweinstieger in an advanced central role, mostly came out of necessity. Thanks to injuries to Michael de Leeuw, Matt Polster and Djordje Mihailovic, the offseason departures of David Accam, Juninho and Joao Meira and, outside of Aleksandar Katai, the lack of experienced replacements signed, Chicago have had a talent deficit in most of their matches. That forced Paunovic to use highly situational game plans, shifting his pieces around and giving untested players like rookies Mo Adams, Diego Campos, Elliot Collier and Grant Lillard and second-year midfielder Brandt Bronico significant minutes almost every week.

“I think in a difficult time we were capable of adapting and creating counter-dynamics against our opponents,” said Paunovic. “Sometimes that surprised them and worked; sometimes we were close and it didn’t. But definitely we were capable of being creative in difficult times and trying to move the pieces around until they fit together in a way where we said, ‘OK, this is how we can play, how we can win.’”

To be clear, this isn’t quite how Paunovic would’ve drawn it up. Though they’re above the playoff line and in a good run of form, Chicago have had to scratch and claw for every result this year. None of their six wins have been by more than one goal; they’ve coughed up second-half leads three times to drop eight points. That’s in stark contrast to 2017, when seven of Chicago’s 11 wins at this point in the season were by two or more goals.

Paunovic admitted that Chicago not yet cruising to a victory has been “draining,” but both he and Schweinsteiger struck a hopeful tone that his team is turning a corner. They both feel like the Fire have found a solid shape and lineup, they both think the early struggles have created a better chemistry than the club had in 2017 and they both think the young players that have been forced into the lineup will be valuable depth once injured players return and potential transfer targets arrive.

Those transfer targets, of course, will be key. Paunovic said that the club’s search for a No. 10, a center back, a fullback and, potentially, a goalkeeper remain ongoing. The Fire know they need to actually land a couple of those pieces if they want to mount a serious challenge for any MLS hardware this year, but the fact that they’re in position to make a potential run is a credit to Paunovic and his willingness to adapt.

“This year for me is actually a great challenge,” he said. “I’m discovering more skills and I have to actually develop more skills and get better, but I’m more confident and I know how to win. I absolutely know how to win. That’s why we’re always close and that’s why we never give up. That’s the identity we have.”

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