After making a disappointing start to the 2019 MLS season, Chicago Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic already finds himself on the coaching hot seat.
It’s only the third week of the 2019 Chicago Fire campaign, but club manager Veljko Paunovic is already on the MLS coaching hot seat. The Serbian’s tenure in Chicago has been full of highs and lows. In his first season as head coach, the Men In Red finished in last place in MLS, picking up the infamous Wooden Spoon award at the end of the year.
Fans did not blame him much for the struggles, as it was clear the team given to him was simply not good enough. The front office improved the roster in the offseason and the performances on the field followed, as Paunovic helped guide the team to a third-place finish and a home playoff appearance. That game could not have gotten any worse, however. The Fire were swept away by the New York Red Bulls, but fans were hopeful the club could build off their success. They did not. The 2018 season was a tragic one that saw Chicago come nowhere close to a postseason berth.
Paunovic’s initial contract was set to run out in the following offseason, and it wasn’t clear if the Fire would be sticking with him or letting him go. Days after the start of the new calendar year, the front office made their decision: Paunovic was signed to a two-year extension with an option for a third. It was a controversial call, to say the very least, as fans were unsure whether he deserved it. The pressure was on to prove his worth.
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So far this season, he simply hasn’t been able to. The Fire have only picked up one point in three games, when they really should have at least four, if not six. Chicago had several chances to finish the game off against the Los Angeles Galaxy in the season opener but ended up conceding twice late to come away with nothing from the contest. The Men In Red were woeful against Orlando City the week after and were lucky to snatch a point at the death after CJ Sapong headed home in stoppage time. Chicago were then run off their own home field by the Seattle Sounders, who were seemingly able to score at will.
Not all the issues are because of Paunovic, admittedly, but the coach still deserves plenty of blame. The starting line-ups he names are usually fine, as there have been a few injury problems this season, but the manager’s struggles come when he has to make vital substitutions over the course of a match.
He often decides to park the bus at the end of games instead of going for a killer goal. Paunovic took off Aleksandar Katai against LA and substituted an inform Djordje Mihailovic for Brandt Bronico to bring in defensive cover. When the Fire ultimately found themselves behind again, they did not have the attacking options available to go grab an equalizer. Chicago were behind Orlando the week after and Paunovic still made defensive moves, bringing off Mihailovic again and Nemanja Nikolic. His defensive tendencies have cost the Fire on a number of occasions. Fans just want to see Chicago start going for it at the end of games instead of sitting back and trying to hold what they have.
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His first major Chicago Fire starting line-up mistake this season came against Seattle, as he decided to play Nicholas Hasler out of position to cover for the suspended Jorge Corrales. After being dominated early, Paunovic had to fix the mess he made by bringing in Raheem Edwards only 30 minutes into the game to help the Fire transition to a 3-5-2 formation. It was nice to see he could admit he was wrong mid-game, but he was still at fault for what happened in the first place.
It no longer seems the players are fully behind Paunovic either. This has become apparent in the way the Fire start both the first and second halves in games. In his biggest game as Chicago manager, Paunovic saw his team give up two goals in the opening ten minutes of a playoff match against the New York Red Bulls. It was the case against the Sounders as well, as the Fire conceded twice in the opening quarter hour and only lasted four minutes in the second half before giving up another goal.
When the Fire were at their best in 2017, they were the ones taking early leads. Paunovic had the team flying out the blocks; his team was winning games early and often. Everyone bought into the gameplan. Now, though, that is no longer the case. The Fire seem hesitant early on and the players on the field quickly lose confidence after conceding the opener. Bastian Schweinsteiger looks especially frustrated in recent weeks, and some are wondering if he might just retire in the middle of a game at some point this season.
It’s still way too early in the campaign to actually let Paunovic go, but he’s very much on the hot seat. The pressure is on him to get results, as he now has a team good enough to contend in the Eastern Conference. The championship window is closing on an ageing Chicago Fire core, so the front office cannot afford to waste this season. If things don’t improve quickly, it might be time to move on from Paunovic and find someone else.