What's behind Chicago Fire's surprising coaching hire

In surprising everyone by hiring Veljko Paunovic as the eighth coach in team history, the Chicago Fire opted for the bold but risky choice.

Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez could have tabbed U.S. U-20 national team coach Tab Ramos or former Columbus Crew midfielder Guillermo Barros Schelotto, two top candidates, according to rumors.

He could have made the safe choice of former Real Salt Lake and NYCFC coach Jason Kreis. Or Rodriguez could have kept technical director and interim coach Brian Bliss, who remains with the club for now. He could have gone with another MLS veteran, such as Sporting Kansas City's Kerry Zavagnin.

"Clearly this was not an obvious choice," Rodriguez said on a conference call Tuesday. " ... But we have chosen on the basis of our values, on a set of principles of play that we believe are fundamental foundations of all successful teams, and on a hunger to win that matches that of our fans, our friends and our partners."

The Fire opted to fight history by hiring an international coach in the 38-year-old Paunovic, who led Serbia to the U-20 World Cup title this year.

Paunovic played briefly for the Philadelphia Union in 2011, but was that enough to gain an understanding of the unique way MLS works to be the first international coach to win an MLS Cup?

No international coach has even gone to the conference finals since 2010. Carlos de los Cobos, the only other international coach in Fire history, failed miserably, starting the team's current downward spiral.

"I know well the history of foreign coaches in the league," Rodriguez said. "One of the characteristics that we specifically sought with our candidates was familiarity with Major League Soccer. His firsthand experience as a player, I think, is a huge advantage. He understands what it is to live as a Major League Soccer player. He understands the nuances and difficulties of our league on the player. Playing across four different time zones. ... Playing at altitude, playing in the heat and humidity of a summer afternoon and playing on artificial turf and grass."

Then there's the question specific to the Fire: Will he be given the resources to do the job successfully, resources that his predecessors here haven't had?

Rodriguez saw it a different way, as Fire executives always have, at least publicly.

"He was given a lot (of resources) at Serbia, but not perhaps not even as much as he'll be given here," Rodriguez said. "We spare no resources. We are fortunate enough to have an ownership group that has put no barriers and limitations to what we can do and what we need to do, so I suspect he'll even become better with more resources, although we still want him to be adaptable and not lose that skill set."

He seems to be the anti-Yallop. He's younger, more energetic, more in tune with social media and eager to use various technologies on the job. He will put more time into the job. Rodriguez described the copious notes and video files Paunovic had on teams throughout MLS.

"He even knew about some players who had come through our academy and are playing at universities," Rodriguez said. "I have zero doubt about his ability to adapt."

Paunovic is expected to be introduced to the media and fans next week in Chicago.

"I have a huge amount of energy, knowledge and experience to deliver to our team and our community," Paunovic said in a statement released by the team. "Soccer is a lifestyle that I live and preach my whole life. I love this kind of challenge, where you have to build a champion by giving your best in every moment. I see the Chicago Fire as a hurt lion ready to unleash all its power."

He will be taking over a club that has played in just one playoff game the last six MLS seasons. The Fire is a very hurt lion. Paunovic will have to prove he's a lion tamer, or he'll be eaten alive by angry Fire fans just as Yallop was.

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Veljko Paunovic, who led Serbia to the U-20 World Cup title, was named the eighth coach of the Chicago Fire on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Chicago Fire
While Veljko Paunovic won a U-20 World Cup title with Serbia, no international coach has won the MLS Cup. Paunovic was named the eighth coach of the Chicago Fire on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Chicago Fire

Chicago Fire coaching history

MLS record Coach (tenure) W-L-T

Bob Bradley (10/30/97 to 10/5/2002) 109-66-20

Dave Sarachan (11/4/02 to 6/20/07 55-50-31

Juan Carlos Osorio (7/1/07 to 12/10/07) 6-3-6

Denis Hamlett (1/11/08 to 11/24/09) 24-18-21

Carlos de los Cobos (1/1/10 to 5/30/11) 10-16-15

Frank Klopas (5/30/11 to 10/30/13) 34-17-25

Frank Yallop (10/31/13 to 9/2015) 13-26-34

Brian Bliss* (9/20/15 to 11/23/15) 1-4-0

Veljko Paunovic (11/24/15 to ???)

* Denotes interim status

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