2017 MLS SEASON PREVIEW
Chicago Fire coach Veljko Paunovic wasn't expecting to win the league in his first season leading the team, but he didn't think it would go as poorly as it did.
"Last year we knew that it was going to be a difficult season for us," Paunovic told Goal, "but we obviously expected better results."Now that 2016 and its last-place finish are behind him, though, the 39-year-old believes he and his team have learned from the experience.
"There are no shortcuts. You have to make mistakes, you have to learn from them, you have to obviously build a team from your core," the coach continued. "There are still a lot of pieces from last year and the years before, but obviously this year we brought in a lot of new players and we believe that the pieces we brought into the team this year are some of the very important pieces that we were missing last year."
Rather than blow up the whole operation after getting just 31 points last season, Paunovic instead chose to keep much of the core in tact. The young players who were thrust into roles they perhaps weren't ready for have grown into their positions.
Still, there was an obvious need to improve, and the Fire did that by targeting veterans at key locations.
"What we did is in our spine we believe we brought leaders, we brought guys who can deal with high pressure and with the challenges of the league, the stress, the results, the competition," Paunovic said. "That’s very important."
The Fire hope that the spine of the team will help it hold stronger than it did in 2016, when there were moments of joy but largely a failure to build any positive momentum.
The team will have a new face in goal, bidding goodbye to Sean Johnson, who had been with the club since being drafted in 2010, and signing Uruguayan shot-stopper Jorge Bava. Center backs Joao Meira and Johan Kappelhof each arrived in MLS last season and now have a year under their belt. Nemanja Nikolic could add the scoring threat at center forward the team was missing.
And instead of spending big on a marketing darling, the Fire's biggest acquisitions came in central midfield. MLS veterans Dax McCarty and Juninho take Chicago from having little experience in front of the back line to having one of the league's strongest pairings.
Pushing all those moving parts in one direction might not be easy, but the additions and Paunovic's enthusiasm about both new acquisitions and returning players have helped speed up the process during the preseason.
"I think taking it day-by-day is the secret right now," Juninho told Goal. "I’ve never played on the same team with these guys before, but I know each of them has potential. I know the Chicago Fire have struggled during the past few years and haven’t been to the playoffs the last few years.
"My decision was very clear. I spoke to the coach, Pauno, before I signed and I knew what he wanted. As a group, we’re trying to build up the chemistry, get to know players inside the field and outside the field, trying to get chemistry right away. I know it’ll take a little time, but we don’t have another choice. We have to do it that way."
The results may already be showing if you put trust in preseason matches. The Fire set soccer Twitter alight with video of a sweet team goal in a game against Miami FC earlier this week, building from the back and seeing David Accam finish off the fluid move.
Of course, MLS teams, and even Miami FC itself in a month, will be much stiffer tests.
Still, Paunovic hopes the energy his team is generating now will translate later and "give our fans and our supporters the season that they’ve been looking for for a long time — a season that will be successful, a season that will give them excitement, not only when we are playing at home but away too."
The coach also is looking to establish his side off the field. The addition of some veteran leaders should help his team in the locker room. Last season, the Fire found it difficult to establish any rhythm as poor results fed into more poor results.
The Serbian hopes the identity he's trying to instill in his side will help establish a culture of respect among his players that leads to success on the field.
"Tolerance is very important for building," Paunovic said. "When there is frustration, when there is whatever happened in the season, in our daily life, we are ready to deal with that and we have to set the rules, set the hierarchy and at the same time put everyone on the same page and treat everyone the same — I mean the same in a way where the rules are the rules."
Everyone will have to pull in the same direction for the Fire to break through in the Eastern Conference this season, but Paunovic has high hopes that with a positive attitude and a reinforced spine, things will go much better in his sophomore season.
"I believe that this year we’re in a better spot for sure," he said, "and the experience we had last year will help us to, in my opinion, have a better season this year."