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Veljko Paunović on Nicolás Gaitán arrival: ‘Today, we have a player that we’ve never had’

Nicolás Gaitán is introduced as a Chicago Fire player on March 28, 2019, with general manager Nelson Rodriguez on his right and coach Veljko Paunović on his left. (Photo courtesy of Chicago Fire Soccer Club)

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — Nicolás Gaitán was eager on his first day with the Chicago Fire. Coaches and teammates were impressed with his ability to instantly influence the creativity in midfield. What’s still unknown is where he’ll fit on game day.

The Argentinian midfielder completed a full training session Thursday, displaying his technique and vision with and without the ball. Whether it’s competing for a spot in the starting lineup or increasing goal-scoring chances, Gaitán will change the team’s dynamic.

“It’s going to increase our competition in the team. Not everyone is going to be happy, always,” Fire head coach Veljko Paunović said. “The thing is that we are a stronger team with Nico alongside everyone else on the team. We’re going to find the balance, which is very important in the midfield. The team that wins is the team that plays.”

In a midfield, including Djordje Mihailović and Dax McCarty, among others, Gaitán’s technical ability will add creativity to a team that has scored four goals in three matches this season. Only two teams in the Eastern Conference have scored less.

Gaitán, 31, found success as a winger in addition to playing as an attacking midfielder in Europe, where he played for nearly a decade. McCarty said that experience and versatility will ensure the Fire win battles in the middle of the park.

“We have a lot of technical players that can play in the middle, but we didn’t have that guy that you would consider your traditional old-school style No. 10,” McCarty said after training. “I know that when he was at Atlético Madrid, he was playing out wide a lot. He offers us that versatility and ability to play with a lot of numbers in the midfield.”

Gaitán made more than 250 appearances for SL Benfica in Portugal and nearly 50 with Atlético Madrid, scoring almost 50 goals in the process. The San Martín, Buenos Aires, native won many trophies, including the UEFA Europa League with Atlético last season.

“He’s going to be a great guy for Djordje Mihailović to learn from,” McCarty said. “Djordje has had a great start to the season and has done really well. He needs to continue to push and I think he and Gaitán are going to make a really good partnership in the middle.”

Djordje agreed.

“The first thing I noticed was his technical ability and his awareness to find space,” Mihailović said of Gaitán during training. “For me, it’s going to be an amazing experience to learn from a guy like him and to learn about the little things he can provide for the team.”

Mihailović compared Gaitán’s experience and ability to influence the midfield’s creativity to Bastian Schweinsteiger when the German international arrived in 2017. Although Schweinsteiger also plays in midfield, Paunović believes that’s a good problem to have.

“Give me good players, and I’ll figure it out,” Paunović said.

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