The Cold Head and Warm Heart of Veljko Paunovic
Chicago Fire’s new General Manager Nelson Rodriguez doubled-down on his staff cleansing by announcing the organization’s new coach, Veljko Paunovic last week.
Calling Veljko Paunovic an “outside” choice is an understatement, as most media and local soccer followers tracking the Front Office’s progress (and perhaps thinking they had insider info) rattled off considerably long lists of potential candidates — none of which included the 37-year old who coached Serbia to a u20 World Cup victory this summer.
Now that the announcement is a few days old (buried under so much delicious turkey and Cyber Monday purchases) how much do we really know about Pauno?
Considering he is not available for interviews until next week, all that is available for study is his body of work and previous interviews.
(Ed. Note: Additionally, it’s highly unlikely OTF Soccer would ever be granted an opportunity to interview Pauno unless, in his progressiveness that is discussed later in this post, he disregards the lock-out of independent i.e. “critical” media.)
So, it’s up to the power of Google to patch together a dossier of the new Fire coach who is equal parts Community Manager, Torch Bearer, and Global Citizen.
Where Did Pauno Come From?
Velljko Paunovic, a Serbian, was born in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The Story of Serbia and its neighboring countries is a volatile mix of geographical, political, religious, and tragic elements. It is better told by many, many other online resources whose focus is not American soccer.
Suffice to say, the weight of recent history is not carried lightly by modern day Serbs. Pauno’s father, Blagoje, played professionally with Partizan Belgrade where Veljko also made his professional debut at 17. As a talented forward, his skills took him across continents, with stints with Atletico Madrid in La Liga, Hannover in the Bundesliga, and even a stint in MLS with Philadelphia among many other stops.
Shortly after his retirement he began coaching and developing talent for the Serbian National Team. Speaking six languages and holding collegiate coaching degrees and an UEFA license, Pauno subsequently captured the imagination of the Serbian public (and Vice, and The Washington Post, and ESPN FC) by winning the u20 World Cup against Brazil in an extra time stunner.
Is Chicago the New Serbia?
Frankly, it is surprising that such a lazy angle on Paunovic hasn’t been taken yet. (We’ll wait for his presser next week). Chicago Fire may be struggling; there may be unrest in the locker room, unease in the fan base, and a lingering culture of fear and paranoia within the organization, but Chicago Fire IS NOT a country coming to grips with its violent past. Making that comparison is absolutely absurd.
What could be said, perhaps, is that Pauno has shown an ability to unify and motivate young teams that need unification and motivation. Any further parallels are, at the very least, an allegorical stretch.
What Kind of Coach is Pauno?
If his three years coaching in Serbian, plus his interviews, quotes, and videos are all we have to go on… here’s what we know about Veljko Paunovic:
- He describes his tactical style as “adaptive.” His tactical shifts are based on close study of his opponents, a fact backed-up by Rodriguez’s description of the copious notes and film Pauno had on Fire’s MLS opponents, and their own youth prospects.
- His idea of team “identity” is a matter of unity and shared purpose and does not necessarily apply to a specific playing philosophy.
- Pauno style appears to value mental and physical stoutness, and technical ability. This is especially true of his team’s keepers and back line who are expected to distribute and develop play from their own endline. Pauno’s successes thus far have not required an effective, clinical goal scorer.
- His style of play adds to what is considered the “Serb Style.” Short passing, tactical discipline, taut defense, playing out from the back, and clever midfield creatives have been Serbian mainstays. Paunovic has added power, stamina, and determination to the mix.
- He requires commitment to a team mentality and considers mental training as an essential and often overlooked component in training.
- He views play on the field as a reflection of his team’s moral and cultural identity. Because of this, he is an against “gamesmanship” and the “dark arts” of soccer. In the U20 World Cup Serbia had zero red cards and the fewest yellow cards in the tournament.
- Development and refinement of youth players figures heavily into Paunovic’s philosophy. He has a keen interest in player development, and aligns individual player “business goals” along with the team goals. Coaching national teams requires development, of course, but Pauno’s focus on player skill growth is likely to carry over to his Fire job as Rodriguez also has a history in youth development.
- He spends his money wisely. In years leading up to the U20 tournament Paunovic did much of his Serbian team training on a free UEFA Training Ground, and Rodriguez acknowledged that his resourcefulness is a value to Chicago. “He was given a lot at Serbia, but perhaps not even as much as he’ll be given here. We spare no resources,” Rodriguez said. (Ed. Note: We’ll see)
- He embraces technology (specifically social media) as a tool for off-field learning, communication, and motivation. In an article in El Confidential, Paunovic said that technology “…complements and strengthens the field work we do.”
What Should We Expect From the New Coach?
In reading a lot of his interviews it’s remarkable how “on message” he tends to be — delivering variations of the same concepts; shared passion, cultural identity, player development, etc. Whether it was through his own design or a Serbian Football media plan, Pauno is clearly aware of the influence of media and public opinion.
The u20 Serbian soccer victory was a great story and Paunovic served it up on an appealing multi-culti plate… then the international media gladly ate it up. The crafting and delivery of this message (on top of his performances in major tournaments, obvs) show that he is a modern coach who can use public sentiment and (gasp!) “branding” to propel a team to success. The “Big 4” in American sports know this, but few U.S. Soccer teams outside of the Pacific Northwest have yet to pull off any such sporting personality.
If there is any doubt about how well-crafted Paunovic’s own brand is, visit his YouTube page. There are videos of him fielding questions in Spanish to Mexican press and then switching effortlessly to English to graciously answer questions from a British journalist. There are edited videos of his practice drills that cut to their successful execution in game situations. There are videos of the Serbian team visiting school children in New Zealand. There are videos of the U20’s team meals, exercise, camaraderie, and the drills that comprise their weekly game preparation. In other words, a very convincing C.V. of why Veljko Paunovic is an excellent coach.
As Chicago fans have already witnessed, Paunovic will deal with the public and the media in a way this city has not experienced before.
Instantly after Rodriguez’s announcement (and BEFORE Chicago-Fire.com could even get the PR release up), fans and media were experiencing direct, one-on-one communication with Veljko on Twitter.
In those exchanges Pauno pledged open communication, and described the Fire as “…a hurt lion ready to unleash all its power,” a phrase that seemed to resonate with the fan base. It’s also a hint that his plan in Chicago is likely to mirror his 3-year development of the Serbian team which he described to The Associated Press in June as “21 lions who play football with their hearts and give absolutely everything on the pitch.”
Whether Veljko will be be the new Joel Quennville or the next Jarron Gilbert, no one knows, but if Pauno plans on repeating his Serb success expect to see his tactics extend far beyond the soccer field.
Expect resourcefulness, youth development, the adaption of new technology, an effort at transparency, social media communique, mobilization of community support, and an appeal to the cultural and sport-specific history of Chicago.
So, here we go.