After four years in charge, Veljko Paunović is out as coach of the Chicago Fire.
The announcement came as somewhat of a surprise — but only because of the timing. It appeared Paunović had survived judgment from 2019 considering the Fire’s season ended over a month ago.
Instead, Paunović is out, along with all of his staff. Even equipment managers, trainers and a massage therapist had their “services discontinued,” as it was phrased in the press release, although they will have the opportunity to be retained by the next coach.
A week after the season ended, Rodriguez talked about how something wasn’t right in the Fire’s environment. He refused to put that on Paunović individually at the time, but did say he would be conveying things he wanted to see change.
“We cannot continue doing the same things in the same way and expect a different result,” Rodriguez said on Oct. 14. “So, I’ll be having conversations with Pauno this week and the staff. I have some things in mind that need to change and have to change and will get better. If not, then we’ll be changed.”
Who knows how those conversations went, or why it would take a month to decide to remove Paunović as coach, but the result is Rodriguez separating from someone who he referred to as his “soccer soulmate” on multiple occasions.
It is fairly common in American sports for a general manager to get a second shot at hiring a coach before their job also becomes on the line. It appears Nelson Rodriguez will get his second chance.
Finding justification for why Rodriguez will survive while Paunović will not becomes complicated when the Fire’s successes and failures over the last four years are so entangled between the two.
A year-by-year breakdown of the Fire each of the past four years shows a back-and-forth balance of where the blame should fall. It’s fair to give 2016 as a rebuilding year given the duo inherited a last-place team from 2015. Even if the team was last again in 2016, it was hardly an indictment on Rodriguez or Paunović. Each of the following three years present different storylines.
The stock for both Rodriguez and Paunović went up when they engineered a turnaround season in 2017. Bastian Schweinsteiger’s arrival helped the team move up to third place in the league. It was the Fire’s first playoff berth since 2012.
The Fire flopped in the playoffs in an ugly 4-0 home loss. Overall, the season marked significant progress, but the warning signs were there before the postseason. The Fire went 5-8-2 after the Gold Cup break in 2017. Rodriguez didn’t supplement the roster that summer despite some flaws popping up and Paunović was unable to find an adjustment after the league saw a blueprint for how to frustrate that team.
In 2018, the Fire weren’t able to replicate that success and finished with 32 points in 34 matches. Paunović got a new contract in the offseason after Rodriguez accepted some blame for not assembling a complete roster. If 2017’s late slump could be placed at the feet of both, 2018 was largely on Rodriguez.
This season, Paunović had the players to win, or at least win enough to make the playoffs. The Fire fell three points shy of a postseason berth, but were looking up in the standings all year. There was talent, experience and more depth than the Fire have had in years.
It was the first year that a majority of the blame could be placed on Paunović. Rodriguez assembled a solid roster, at least on paper, and the results didn’t match.
In Paunović’s four years the Fire were 41-58-37 in MLS regular season matches. Since the 2017 Gold Cup break, Paunović’s record is 23-38-22. That shows a lack of progress that is more concerning than his overall record.
For a coach brought in with a youth coaching background, Paunović didn’t show much of a track record for developing young players with the Fire. Academy players scorned the club on multiple occasions to sign elsewhere, many who did didn’t make a mark and first-round draft picks were quickly run out of town.
On top of that Paunović often clashed with players, with different ones finding themselves deep in his doghouse each season. His competitive nature was on display and endeared himself to fans early on, but the results didn’t follow.
There are plenty of things to point to when it came to removing Paunović. Given the way the past few seasons went, the same could be said for Rodriguez, but now Rodriguez will be tasked with finding Paunović’s replacement.
The coming 2020 season was already primed for significant change for the Fire. The team is moving to Soldier Field, a number of key players — Bastian Schweinsteiger, Nemanja Nikolić and Dax McCarty — are gone and now a new coach will be coming in. Maybe more change is still needed.