Fire

Amid Serbia rumors, Fire coach Veljko Paunovic says he hasn't had contact with Serbian federation

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USA TODAY

Amid Serbia rumors, Fire coach Veljko Paunovic says he hasn't had contact with Serbian federation

When Veljko Paunovic was hired as head coach of the Fire in Nov. 2015, he was hailed as a key piece in the club’s rebuilding process.

After enduring another losing season in 2016, that rebuild became a realization with a strong regular season in 2017 that resulted in a home playoff game. Now a potential dream type job for Paunovic, manager of the Serbian national team, has opened up. For now, he’s saying nothing will come of it.

“I haven’t met with anyone,” Paunovic said at a press conference on Wednesday. “I haven’t talked to anyone from the Serbian federation. I did go to Serbia for a different purpose, a professional scouting trip and to see my family, but I also went to Europe, other countries, to do more scouting and that’s all I can say. What I can also say is that I’m very happy and when we came here we said that we are in the process, we are going to do, we are going to build a championship program. I’m very happy with the progress we had.”

Paunovic was joined by general manager Nelson Rodriguez in what was scheduled as a year-end wrap up press conference. Once the Serbia job opened up, Paunovic’s name popped up as a natural candidate. Rodriguez also said he hasn’t had any contact with anyone from Serbia about Paunovic, who is under contract with the Fire for one more year.

Slavoljub Muslin led Serbia through qualifying to earn a spot in the 2018 Russia World Cup, but he and the federation separated after qualifying concluded.

''We parted ways because we don't think alike on how the team should look for the World Cup in Russia,'' Muslin was quoted by Serbian media, according to an AP report.

Speculation around Paunovic came from the fact that he won the 2015 Under-20 World Cup with Serbia. That run included a win against the U.S. in the quarterfinals and assistant coaches Marko Mitrovic and Aleksandar Saric followed Paunovic to the Fire’s staff.

Paunovic was asked if the Serbia job is something he has as an ambition at some point in his career.

“I’m always focused on what I’m doing now,” Paunovic said. “My purpose when we came here was to build a team that will be a championship team, that will win championships and that will resonate in soccer in the United States, with the style, the mentality, everything. I focus all my energy and my mind, only on that. I think I still have a lot of things to do here and I’m looking ahead to next season as a great opportunity for all of us to improve, for me too as a coach, and to fulfill my personal goal, but the same goal that we all together share which is to have Chicago Fire being one of the best teams, or the best team in the United States.”

Why Nemanja Nikolic deserved to be the Fire’s MVP beyond his goal total

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Why Nemanja Nikolic deserved to be the Fire’s MVP beyond his goal total

Goal-scorers win awards and get extra attention so it’s no secret why Nemanja Nikolic, who led MLS in goals in 2017, was named the Fire’s team MVP on Tuesday.

However, it’s not that simple in this case.

Nikolic led the league with 24 goals and blew away the club record for goals in a season. Goals are the most valuable thing in soccer, but in the case of Nikolic and the Fire, the reasons why he is team MVP go well beyond simply goals scored.

There are three other players who, when healthy and playing at their best, were arguably better players and more valuable to the Fire this season: Dax McCarty, Bastian Schweinsteiger and David Accam. Taking each player one at a time will show how they were more valuable at times than Nikolic, but ultimately fell short when looking at the season as a whole.

For starters, McCarty was a revelation in midfield. The 30-year-old, along with Schweinsteiger and Juninho, helped turn the Fire’s midfield from one of the worst in the league to one of the better ones. His leadership and experience of playing on winning teams in MLS (this was his eighth straight year being on a playoff team) was crucial in helping turn things around.

In the first half of the season McCarty was arguably playing the best he had in his career. However, as he continued to get called in to the national team, he missed six games and his form wasn’t as strong in the second half of the year. (Sidenote: McCarty was by far the Fire’s best player in the team’s playoff loss.)

The story is similar, but different for Schweinsteiger. The German signed after the Fire played three games and was incredibly influential early on. However, as teams adjusted to the Fire’ style of play, Schweinsteiger took on a different role and on top of that he played only 19 minutes in the final seven matches of the year. Schweinsteiger was the Fire’s best player at his peak, but the late-season injury was killer for the Fire down the stretch.

Like with Schweinsteiger, Accam’s season was derailed by an injury. He set the league on fire with 12 goals and seven assists in his first 19 games of the season. He ranked in the top five in MLS in both categories, the only player at the time to have that claim. However, a nerve injury in his hip limited him and he finished with two goals and an assist in his final 11 games and started just one of the Fire’s final four regular season matches. Accam was the player opposing teams had to gameplan for most due to his speed, ability to beat a player in one-on-one situations and his willingness to set up teammates, but he wasn’t the same player in the last third of the season.

While these three players showcased more well-rounded games and impacted the team in more than one way, Nikolic was the most consistent. The Hungarian forward did have a midseason slump of nine straight games without a goal, a stretch that the Fire went 2-6-1 in, but when the team was pushing for playoff seeding at the end of the regular season he delivered. Nikolic scored eight goals in the last seven matches and six in the last four.

Nikolic even had his own MVP moment in the final home game of the regular season against Philadelphia. He scored an early goal to give the Fire the lead, but the Union went into halftime up 2-1. Nikolic tied the match with a penalty kick and later scored the game-winner on what may have been his best finish of the season. That goal, and the win it produced, proved crucial to locking up a home game in the first round of the playoffs. If the Fire tied that match they would have been fifth in the standings heading into the final game at Houston.

Of course, the Fire wasted that home playoff game, but the significance of Nikolic producing his best finish in a spot that big late in the season is a big reason why he deserves to be the team’s MVP. For much of the season he was the Fire’s fourth, maybe even fifth best player, but he was the only player on the team to play in every match and he started every one. That reliability, combined with his goals and the slumps of the team’s better players, makes Nikolic a no-brainer for team MVP.

Fire all over MLS year-end award finalists

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Fire all over MLS year-end award finalists

When a team goes from back-to-back last place finishes to third in the league, it's not a surprise when that team is well-represented on the list of year-end award finalists.

Nemanja Nikolic (twice), Veljko Paunovic and Matt Lampson were listed as finalists for various year-end awards in MLS. In each case, voting has closed for the awards and naming finalists is simply a recognition of the top vote-getters.

Nikolic, who won the Golden Boot this year by scoring 24 goals, is one of five finalists for the Landon Donovan MVP award. Nikolic is joined by Atlanta's Miguel Almiron, Portland's Diego Valeri, New York City FC's David Villa and Toronto's Sebastian Giovinco. Valeri and Villa are considered the favorites, leaving Nikolic as a bit of a darkhorse, but as the league's leading goal-scorer he still earned some consideration.

Nikolic was also included as one of three finalists for Newcomer of the Year. Again, Nikolic's resume is hard to fight here with Almiron and Atlanta's Josef Martinez also making the final three. Martinez may have won the Golden Boot had he stayed healthy. The Venezuelan striker scored 19 goals in 20 appearances, 17 of which were starts.

Paunovic made the cut as one of three finalists for Coach of the Year. The Serbian took the Fire from last in his first year to having the third-best record in the regular season. Toronto's Greg Vanney, who guided TFC to the highest-point total in league history, and Atlanta's Tata Martino, who took an expansion team to the playoffs for the third time in league history, both probably have better resumes than Paunovic, but all three have an argument for the award.

The timing of Paunovic being announced as a finalist coincides with Serbia removing national team coach Slavoljub Muslin despite the country qualifying for the 2018 World Cup. Paunovic won the Under-20 World Cup with Serbia in 2015 and likely would be interested in the job, but his relative lack of high-level experience may make Serbia pause, even for one of the country's favorite sons.

Lampson is again a finalist for Humanitarian of the Year after winning the award last year. He has worked on his LampStrong Foundation to support childhood cancer patients.

The full list of finalists is available here.