Chicago Fire’s Hire of Paunovic Could Be Feast or Famine for St. Louis FC


Early Tuesday morning, the Chicago Fire announced the hiring of Veljko Paunovic as its next head coach. In his playing days, the Serbian international began playing at 17 for Serbian side FK Partisan, before quickly moving on to Spain, playing with Atletico Madrid. From his initial move to Atletico until his retirement in 2011, the striker played for 12 clubs in six nations; he ended his career with a stint with the Philadelphia Union in MLS.

Shortly afterward he began his managerial career. In 2014 he guided the Serbs to a third place finish at the U-20 European Championships. Earlier this summer, he coached the Serbian U-20 to a World Cup title, knocking off the United States in the quarterfinal; afterward he was brought on to work with the senior Serbian squad.

So where does St. Louis FC, the Fire’s USL affiliate, fit into the new regime? The answer could very well be “quite snug” or “not at all”.

There are a few things to note about Paunovic. First, it’s obvious the man is at least a good coach. A World Cup at any level is quite the accomplishment and should not be overlooked. Equally as important is the fact that he won a U-20 World Cup. Paunovic is also fluent in six languages. Couple all that with his young age (38) and it becomes obvious that Paunovic can bring in and develop young, possibly international talent.

The Fire already have a sizeable academy built up for Paunovic to reap the benefits of. Under coach Larry Sunderland, the U-17/18 side won a national championship last season, and the U-14 racked up a 6-2-1 record as of November 6, outscoring their opponents 27-11 and averaging three goals a game.

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The question remains of where Paunovic decides to develop the talent. That place could very well be St. Louis FC; in the one season STLFC has been affiliated with Chicago, St. Louis FC has seen three loanees arrive from the Fire: D Patrick Doody, F Bryan Gaul, and GK Alec Kann. Gaul has been of particular help to the team, notching four goals and four assists in his appearances for St. Louis.

The three have helped the Fire at the top level as well. Kann made his MLS début on October 25 against the Red Bulls, recording six saves and giving up two goals; Doody appeared in seven games for the Fire along with 21 appearances for STLFC. The combination of the deep academy talent and Paunovic’s ability to develop talent could mean that STLFC becomes a part of the pipeline from academy to the Fire’s first-team.

For STLFC in regards to their standing in the USL, Paunovic’s hire could be a boon. Paunovic’s eye for scouting and knack for developing young talent could mean great things for the team; as more (and better) talent comes through St. Louis, the team will improve as that talent is developed to thrive in Paunovic’s system, whatever that may be.

Oct 25, 2015; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez speaks to the media before the game against the New York Red Bulls at Toyota Park. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

An indication that this is indeed the case is the presence of STLFC coaching staff at open tryouts for the Fire in December. After evaluating players on day two of the two-day tryout, STLFC will invite some of the players to their preseason training camp. While that by no means guarantees a spot, the mere presence of STLFC signals a deeper integration of the side into the Fire’s plans.

On the other hand, there are some indications that the Fire could be headed in a different direction. In the announcement press conference, Fire General Manager Nelson Rodriguez affirmed that the Fire would “spare no expense” to get their new head coach the team he wants.

That could mean a Fire II USL side. A Fire PDL side already exists, counting current Fire players Harry Shipp and Chris Ritter amongst its alumni. It’s not infeasible that the side is promoted to the USL in the near future; a Fire II in the USL, perhaps coached by Sunderland, would give Rodríguez and Paunovic more control over the development of their players than shipping them to St. Louis could afford them.

For now, the future of the Chicago Fire/STLFC pairing seems quite secure, but there remains the possibility that it could be gone within a year or two.

This is the MLS. Crazier things have happened.

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