CHICAGO — He was just a young boy during the war in Yugoslavia, and the sport of soccer offered an alternative — and hope — for Veljko Paunović.
At his home, it was basically 24 hours of soccer, on TV, radio, talking about it and playing it with his family and neighbors.
His late father, Blagoje Paunović, was a massive figure at Partizan Belgrade and was capped 44 times for Yugoslavia starting in defense in a loss to Italy at the 1968 European Championships.
The Serbian Paunović speaks openly about the influence of his father and the stages of his development as a player and a coach. Paunović had a playing career that included six seasons with Atletico Madrid and 350 professional appearances overall followed by a managerial career which began with the Serbia youth national teams and continues with the Chicago Fire.
Paunović, who recently signed a three-year extension, is entering his fourth season as the head coach of the Fire. He shared the story of his journey at the United Soccer Coaches Convention in a spotlight one-on-one with Pro Soccer USA’s Glenn Crooks.
Pro Soccer USA: Describe the relationship with your father. How did he impact your life?
Veljko Paunović: “My father was a legend. When he retired he became a coach, so I’m kind of following his path.
“Here’s a story, and it’s something you coaches are facing today — the respect for the coach. When I was a kid, we would finish our game and I would go straight to the car, and on the way back home, if I said something about my coach, my father would never permit that. Today, I think it’s different. Fathers are commenting on the coaches and the decisions. He never permitted that to happen.
“I owe him so much. He shaped me. He shaped my way of living – my mom, too. But he made decisions for me that were very important. When you look back you look at one or two decisions that your father made for you and changed your life. For me, he did it many more times than that and that’s something I’ll always be grateful for.”
PSUSA: At what point in your playing career did you decide you wanted to coach?
VP: “When I was 26 years old, I started thinking about being a coach. I started to feel that all the experience and preparation I had was something that one day I wanted to pass along. It was organic; I was coaching while I was playing. I had a lot of young teammates and I would observe some mistakes, not only on the field but in their behavior and attitude. It was a natural thing. While I was still playing, I got my UEFA Pro (license) from the Spanish FA. I coached in the Atletico Madrid Academy then the Serbia U-18s, U-19s and U-20s – and now the Fire.”
PSUSA: You played at Belgrade, also in Russia, Germany, Spain, and ended your career with the Philadelphia Union. How did these experiences mold your thinking as a coach?
VP: “I like the Spanish style. Spain is the tiki-taka country. They love the ball, love the possession, love the technical side of the game and love the ideas. As a coach, you have to have ideas before the game, during the game, after the game — everything has to come from an idea.
“Different styles and different teams I’ve been playing for gave me just a little more perspective of how rich our game is. How many ways you can play or game. How many outfits you can wear. In order to win a game, sometimes you’re a lion, sometimes you’re a sheep, sometimes you’re a snake — if I can say it that way.”
PSUSA: You guided Serbia to the U-20 World Cup title in 2015, defeating Brazil 2-1 in the final. This was not the prediction in the soccer community. How did you make it happen?
VP: “The motivation was the most important thing. We put together a team that was driven. Every one of them was very, very motivated to succeed as people, as professionals in soccer, and that’s something that we selected. My opinion is that if you have the opportunity to select as the national team coach, select the people you want to work with and that you want to coach – that’s the most important thing.”
PSUSA: What were some of the ways you motivated the team?
VP: “It’s not easy. Together with the staff we put the guys who were driven and we gathered them around the idea of being the world champions from the first day we met. And we put on the board a famous generation that became world champions in 1987. My keeper coach with the Fire, Aleksandar Saric, was on that team. That generation, they all were great players playing for teams like Real Madrid and Atletico. 31 years after, we told our guys, the team that never wins anything, you can win. We started to build that and that projection helped a lot.”
PSUSA: How did coaching on the youth level help you progress to the professional level?
VP: “The group that we coached on the national team, especially in the second and third year – they all played in the professional level. I was coming from the professional level as 13 or 14 years as a player and I always coached them like pros. There’s not a big difference but there are more big personalities in the pros. What most of the pro coaches forget about is the discipline. At the youth level you can discipline the players instantly. In the pros it’s not like that but you have to do you best. Sometimes we give up on that and . . . do a little bit to keep [the players] comfortable or in the mood to train – we compromise. I learned that on the pro level you have to be very strict and direct.”
PSUSA: How do you coach big players – players like Bastian Schweinsteiger, who has won a World Cup?
VP: “I met him before we signed him. I had to go talk to him and convince him, basically. In that meeting, we connected very well. Immediately, he saw what he described later, that I was kind of the coach he would like to play for. And that was based on the honesty, the approach and the communication and the interaction we had. At one point, we started to go back and forth on talking about how the team should play. Suddenly, all the glasses and silver were moving on the table. That was a moment of connection – something you want to have with every player.”
PSUSA: Was it challenging to figure out where Schweinsteiger fit in?
VP: “Of course. I know the people are asking, ‘Where is Bastian going to play this game?’ He is capable of playing anywhere. If you convince him, he will do it 100 percent. At the end, it’s a huge resource for us – a joy to work with him on a daily basis. You have to always be ready for the question that maybe you’re not ready for. He sees the game and understands. So far, it’s always been fantastic and our relationship it’s still growing.”
PSUSA: To what extent do you focus on the character of the player when scouting for the Fire?
VP: “We travel, we meet and we talk to players. I heard this from one of my coaches: I have to look at the player in his eyes. I have to see if he is a player for us. Of the biggest importance is meeting the player at the end. At the end, it’s the person.”
PSUSA: Did you reach out to any coaches for advice when you first began to coach?
VP: “El Cholo [Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone]. I met with him in the early stages of my coaching. We were teammates [at Atletico Madrid]. I wanted to know how to deal with the players and the different personalities. He said everything is about the player. You have to earn the players’ trust first, and then you can do whatever you want. For me, that was an epiphany moment. That’s actually what I as a player would like – a coach like that.”
PSUSA: Other than Simeone and your father, what other coaches have influenced you?
VP: “We all probably read the same books. I learned and read coaches from other sports also. The NBA and Phil Jackson. I like ‘The Pyramid of Success’ from John Wooden. I started with that when I started coaching.”
PSUSA: How do you stay on top of your game and educate yourself as a coach now?
VP: “That’s a challenge. You watch a lot of football. You actually watch more than ever, but you start to shrink because you focus more and more on winning, on your player, focusing on the opponent. It’s hard to step out and watch the game as a student again, and that’s very important. I listen to audio books. Here in Chicago traffic it’s a great thing, and I learn from experienced coaches. I don’t know if you saw the movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime on Manchester City, Juventus and Sunderland. For me, that was a fantastic learning experience.”
PSUSA: What stood out about Pep Guardiola in the Amazon documentary “All or Nothing: Manchester City”?
VP: “He seems more relaxed than he probably was at Bayern – he’s 100 percent him. I don’t know him personally. I played against him and met him. I feel like he has no limits on his creativity and ideas and he’s communicating very well. That stood out for me, seeing a coach in his prime doing a fantastic job.”
PSUSA: Was the transition from player to coach difficult for you?
VP: “When you’re a player, you think you know everything. And when you retire and say, ‘I’m going to do everything my coaches didn’t and I’m going to win and I’m going to show everything how this should be’ — It’s not like that. When you start to coach, you start to discover how much you don’t know.”
PSUSA: Nelson Rodriguez talked about meeting with you in the MLS offices where he worked before taking the general manager job with the Fire. He was impressed with your attention to detail – you knew something about every team in the league and you weren’t even applying for a job.
VP: “I’m a junky. When I was coaching on the national team, I always carried my external hard drive with me. I would put in there everything I would see that I liked in some of the games I was watching. Sometimes, I would record with my phone any play I considered important for my team’s style of play. I still have it. It’s in a safe. It’s very important for me because I have almost everything I have in my head collected in those clips from games I’ve been watching over the years.”
PSUSA: Do you review them?
VP: “Of course – every preseason.”
PSUSA: What can you tell us about your training sessions with the Chicago Fire?
VP: “We structure our session in a way where players have their preparation. We share what we are going to do before the session. And we are going to end with fun – always. Organized fun, but we still stay disciplined. That part of feeling good about leaving the session and wanting to return tomorrow is important, it applies almost every single day until the game.”
PSUSA: If we brought in Dax McCarty and asked him if he has fun at the end of every training session, would he say yes?
VP: “Well, I don’t know about Dax, but Bastian would say yes.”