It’s been a tough season for Veljko Paunovic and the Chicago Fire, but the third-year head coach is “confident” he and the club will agree to a new deal to bring him back for 2019 and beyond.
Paunovic, who took over the Fire ahead of the 2016 season, is out of contract at the end of 2018. The Serbian manager has had an up and down tenure in Chicago; he oversaw a last-place finish in 2016, surprised the league by finishing third in the 2017 regular season, then took a huge step back in a miserable 2018 in which the Fire have earned just 31 points through 32 matches.
Despite the club’s rough 2018 and lackluster overall record in his 100 regular season games at the helm, Paunovic still thinks he and the Fire will come to terms on a new contract this winter.
“Do I think [I’ll be back]? I don’t know. I don’t see the future that way. I cannot see those things, but I’m confident that I will,” he told MLSsoccer.com on Friday.
Paunovic reiterated on Friday his desire to strike a new deal to remain with the Fire, though he said negotiations will be on hold until after the season ends on Oct. 28. Fire president and GM Nelson Rodriguez said earlier this year that he’d like to bring Paunovic back after his current deal expires.
“Everyone has to think about his future and see if we still fit to work with each other. I think that’s all. I think that’s the conversation we need to have in the future,” said Paunovic.
Chicago had high hopes entering this year coming off their strong 2017 regular season, but a difficult offseason put the Fire in a tough spot from the jump. The club traded 2017 starting winger David Accam to Philadelphia and goalkeeper Matt Lampson to Minnesota in January and let starting center back Joao Meira walk after his contract expired following the season.
They signed attacker Aleksandar Katai in February to replace Accam, but did not add an experienced center back, goalkeeper or central midfielder – all positions the club said they were targeting – in the offseason. Torn ACLs suffered late last season by 2017 starting midfielder Michael de Leeuw and promising teenager Djordje Mihailovic further limited the Fire at the start of the campaign. Despite that, the club hung around over the first-half and sat in sixth in the East at the start of July.
A big summer transfer window could have kept them in the playoff discussion, but that scenario did not come to pass and the lack of reinforcements spelled doom for the rest of their season. A 3-2 loss at Vancouver on July 7 started an eight-game losing streak. By the time they snapped the skid with a draw against Columbus on Aug. 23, they’d fallen to 10th-place, nine points out of playoff position.
“Everything was difficult for us,” Paunovic said.
Paunovic hesitated to speak too critically of himself, any individual players or any position groups with the season still ongoing, saying it’d be unfair to do so until after the Fire’s final two games of the year. He did, however, acknowledge that the club came up well short in both transfer windows this season.
“We could do better, definitely, and we might [have lost] some opportunities, but it’s never easy because you have other parts that are involved in negotiations, so it’s never easy to close the deal,” he said. “But me as a coach, I have to focus to work on the guys that we have and that was my main focus. I always try to give my best to them and try to prepare them to be the best they can be so they can perform. At the end, we will definitely evaluate again and give our judgment on how well we did in, or actually how bad we did it in this case.”
Paunovic also spoke about his regular tinkering with his starting lineups and tactics this season. After riding a 4-2-3-1 formation to great success in 2017, the Fire haven’t had a consistent shape at almost any point this year. They’ve used the same starting XI and formation in back-to-back regular season games only twice all season and have regularly changed their formation, personnel, how they mark and where they press.
In an interview this week with the Chicago Tribune, captain Dax McCarty cited the constant changes as a reason for the team’s inability to string together positive results this season. Paunovic readily acknowledged that he’s tinkered a good deal, but said it came out of necessity due to injuries and a lack of experience on the roster early this season and accurately pointed out that the changes – at least in terms of team shape – have slowed since de Leeuw and Mihailovic returned from injury this summer.
The Fire have looked better since that duo returned, but the improvements have only been marginal and came far too late to make 2018 anything but a massive disappointment.
“We just couldn’t build the momentum,” said Paunovic. “We couldn’t support the consistency of the team. It just wasn’t right in all the games. It’s kind of like a lot of things that were done halfway.”