Chicago Fire president and general manager Nelson Rodriguez consistently talks about how important he believes continuity is for a team. He backed up his words Thursday by extending coach Veljko Paunović’s contract.
Paunović has signed a two-year deal with a club option for a third year, the club announced Thursday. Paunović joined the Fire before the 2016 season on a three-year contract, which concluded after the 2018 season.
Paunović’s entire staff will return as well.
“We believe the foundation we are setting and the standards we are demanding are the right ones in developing our championship program,” Rodriguez said in the Fire’s statement on Paunović’s new contract. “Continuity is a critical element in that process and retaining Pauno for the next few years as a leader in that effort was an important off-season objective.”
Some may criticize Rodriguez for still talking about setting a foundation as the pair enter their fourth year together, but all the blame for the Fire’s struggles does not fall on Paunović.
When Paunović joined the Fire, he took over a rebuilding project. One that was in such need of a roster overhaul, that he was more or less given a pass when the team finished last in Major League Soccer with 31 points in 34 matches in 2016.
In 2017, Paunović led one of the biggest turnarounds in the league. The revitalized Fire finished with the third-best record in the regular season, but were embarrassed in a 4-0 home playoff defeat to the New York Red Bulls.
This past season, a combination of numerous key long-term injuries and a lack of quality offseason signings led to a rough 2018. The Fire hung around the playoff line for the first half of the season, but an eight-game MLS losing streak in July and August ended those playoff hopes.
The Fire finished with 32 points, just one point ahead of 2016.
The end of Paunović’s contract was public, and despite a 2018 season that ended without a postseason appearance, his job never seemed in jeopardy. Rodriguez gave Paunović hearty endorsements at multiple times throughout 2018 when asked about the Serbian coach’s future.
“We want him to continue,” Rodriguez said on May 23. “We want to extend Pauno’s contract with us. I believe that he wants to as well. Neither of us feel our work is done. We’ll find the right moment in time this year where we sit down and try to do that, whether that’s in a break in the season or towards the end of the year. But the one statement I want to make is this is the poison question for any general manager, is how is your coach? I’ll say this one time, Pauno is our coach, and I’ll never address the question again because there’s no answer that I can give that will ever satisfy anyone.”
Rodriguez reiterated his support again on July 25.
“I think Pauno has given us everything that we expect,” Rodriguez said then.” “We have complete confidence in him and his staff. I think he understood and bought into a project that was not going to be a short-term one, but a long-term one. One that requires daily improvement, one that requires us to work on our mentality inside the field of play and outside the field of play. I still believe that Pauno is a great coach and will be an even bigger coach in the future.”
Paunović returns with what is currently far from a complete roster for 2019. As expected, there has been plenty of turnover. The Fire have already seen 10 players depart, with the potential for a couple more. The supporting cast will look very different, but Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Nemanja Nikolic are set to return as the core. That means Paunović will have to re-form the team in short time to get ready for 2019.
“I feel excited about this project as I was the very first day three years ago when I became a part of the Chicago Fire Football family,” Paunović said. “I’m also very grateful for this new opportunity with the club and the values that I’m fully aligned and committed to representing in every city and field around the globe and US.
“It’s all about the conviction, trust, and unity. Get ready to lift the trophy this year.”