The Chicago Fire interviewed a plethora of coaching candidates in search of the man who could help a moribund club recapture the success of its early years. Candidates ranged from younger to older, American and foreign, some with past ties to Major League Soccer and some who would have been new to the league.
Veljko Paunovic isn't an older coach with years of experience, or is he an MLS lifer with a decade in the league. He is young, has yet to coach a professional team and his experience in MLS consisted of one season playing for the Philadelphia Union. Those characteristics, taken alone, might lead you to believe general manager Nelson Rodriguez was crazy to make Paunovic his first major hire, but Paunovic's qualifications go far beyond those simple traits.
At 38, Paunovic is young in coaching terms, but by all accounts he is ambitious, having already established himself in European circles as a top coaching prospect, securing a UEFA Pro coaching license as well as a sporting director degree from the Spanish Football Federation. Paunovic has never been the head coach of a pro club team before, but he coached a Serbia squad made up of professionals at the Under-20 World Cup and helped convince an underdog team it was capable of being a world champion.
That accomplishment was enough to push Paunovic onto the radar of top European clubs, with Greek club Panathanaikos offering him a coaching job. Paunovic chose to pass on other opportunities though, instead deciding to return to the league where he played the final year of his career, in 2011.
Paunovic only spent one year in MLS as a player, but one year was enough time to make positive impressions on players and coaches who played and worked with him. It was also long enough for the former Atletico Madrid striker to have a front-row seat to how the league runs, and what challenges it presents to players and coaches alike.
"He was our only truly global candidate," Rodriguez said of Paunovic. "While we had some other international candidates, they were not quite familiar with the league. had not played in the league, were not in tune with academy players and the system. I think Paunovic spans the entire globe of soccer."
Put that all together, and you can understand why the Fire chose Paunovic over a long list of candidates that included the likes of Tab Ramos and Guillermo Barros Schelotto, as well as some unidentified foreign coaches who expressed interest in the job.
The Fire's thorough coaching search also suggests that Rodriguez really does have control of an organization that has developed a reputation over the years of being mismanaged, in part, because of the meddling of owner Andrew Hauptman. The fact that Rodriguez, a well-respected executive in MLS circles, took the Fire GM job appeared to be a sign Hauptman had provided assurances that he would allow Rodriguez to run the club without interference.
Rodriguez's hiring of Paunovic seems to suggest just that, which is a good sign for a club that has struggled in the six seasons since Hauptman forced out former head coach Denis Hamlett after two successful seasons in charge.
The Fire may have finished with the worst record, but Paunovic isn't exactly inheriting a club without some building blocks. Midfielders Harry Shipp and Matt Polster, forward David Accam and goalkeeper Sean Johnson give the Fire some talented pieces to build around, and the club will have the No. 1 pick in January's 2016 MLS draft, which could yield Georgetown standout defender Joshua Yaro if he leaves school and signs with MLS. It should also be noted that Hauptman has shown a willingness to spend big to sign high-profile players, having attempted to sign Jermaine Jones and Didier Drogba in the past two seasons only to have them wind up at other MLS clubs.
"We spare no resources," Rodriguez said. "We're fortunate enough to have an ownership group that has put no barriers and limitations to what we can do, and what we need to do. So I suspect (Paunovic) will become even better with more resources."
Designated player signings aside, Paunovic will be expected to help develop the young talent already on the Fire roster, while also helping the club produce more talent from its academy. As it stands, Shipp is the only Fire academy product to make a real impact for the team, and he spent four years being developed in college at Notre Dame. The Fire will be expecting Paunovic to help the Fire tap into the considerable talent pool in the Chicago area, and potentially churn out homegrown player prospects the way FC Dallas and the New York Red Bulls have in recent years.
If Rodriguez and Paunovic can work the international market to help fill the considerable number of weak spots in the Fire lineup, and Paunovic can maximize the potential of promising talents like Shipp and Polster, the Fire could become the latest MLS team to enjoy a dramatic turnaround, and the latest MLS team to be rewarded for showing faith in a young coach.