Can Paunovic get Chicago Fire out of its slump?
Heading into the final eight games of the Major League Soccer season, Chicago Fire fans are about to find out just how good a coach Veljko Paunovic is.
Maybe the Fire (12-9-5, 41 points) was overachieving in May and June when it went on an 11-game unbeaten streak, rising to levels it hasn't seen in years. But in losing its last four games and six of its last seven, the Fire has returned to its underachieving ways of the previous seven seasons.
The team still is fourth in the Eastern Conference standings, but a couple more losses in early September could see the Fire fall out of a playoff spot.
There would be no excuse for missing the playoffs, not even the recent spate of injuries.
Owner Andrew Hauptman stepped up this season and now the Fire has one of the highest-paid teams in the league.
General manager Nelson Rodriguez did well in the off-season to add Juninho, Nemanja Nikolic, Dax McCarty and World Cup winner Bastian Schweinsteiger. Adding depth in the already-injured defender Christian Dean and third-string goalkeeper Richard Sanchez during the summer transfer window wasn't enough, however. The team needed more.
Now it's Paunovic's job to rally his players to recover their early-season winning ways.
"It's part of the job that I love the most, because that's when the coaches have to step in and take the lead and make the guys understand that they are actually a good team because we are. We are," Paunovic said after training Tuesday. "All that, it's a part of the work that I love.
"I cannot say that I'm enjoying, and I'm not saying that. But I'm saying that I love the challenge and I'm doing my best to fix the things."
Paunovic is very competitive. He's had to rein in that competitiveness at times so he doesn't overwork his players, especially after a loss.
"We need now, we need toughness," he said. "We need guys who understand the situation and who can go through all of this because definitely we are a good team. We did well so far in the season. We have this setback right now, but it's the moment for the reaction.
"It's the moment and opportunity against Montreal (6 p.m., Saturday, CSN Plus) to prove our character and our identity and I think there is nothing else to do. Just work, work, work. Stick together. Believe and wait for the opportunity to win the game."
More is needed from Paunovic, however.
Can he lift up his young American players, providing them with the confidence and support they need to succeed? The league emphasizes homegrowns and American players in general. They are the backbone of any MLS team. If Paunovic can't coach them successfully, he won't succeed in MLS.
Can he coax Nikolic out of his eight-game scoring slump? The Hungarian striker has been stuck on 16 goals for a while now.
It seems opposing teams have figured out how to handle the Fire tactically. Can Paunovic figure out a way to counter and communicate that effectively to his players?
Seventh-place Montreal is a surging club fighting for the playoffs. It's also the site of a 3-0 loss just two weeks ago that ranks as Paunovic's worst game of the season.
The Fire will compete Saturday without McCarty due to national team duty. It will compete again without left back Brandon Vincent and center backs Dean and Joao Meira, all due to injuries, though right back Matt Polster is ready to return to the lineup.
And then the fifth-place New York Red Bulls arrive at Toyota Park the following week.
Will these next two games restore the Fire's confidence or bury the team in self-doubt and locker-room rancor?
"We are aware of the situation," Paunovic said. "The guys are working hard for the next game. Next game, next opportunity to face the things."