Veljko Paunovic

Few answers, but some hints about future as Fire officially enter offseason

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USA TODAY

Few answers, but some hints about future as Fire officially enter offseason

It was locker clean out day for the Fire and while there was definitely a last day of school feel in the locker room, a number of the players left Toyota Park on Wednesday not knowing their immediate futures.

Just seven of the 30 players that finished 2017 on the roster have guaranteed contracts for 2018: Johan Kappelhof, Christian Dean, Jorge Corrales, David Accam, Michael de Leeuw, Nemanja Nikolic and Luis Solignac. A healthy number more can safely head into the winter knowing they will have their team options picked up (Dax McCarty, Brandon Vincent, Matt Polster to name a few), but plenty more face uncertainty.

General manager Nelson Rodriguez said the front office is “still discussing” which players will be brought back and which won’t. Rodriguez added that he is about halfway through exit interviews with the players and expects to finish them by the end of the week.

“The rules allow us to not to have to make that decision until late November, early December, the first day of December, so we won’t,” Rodriguez said. “We’ll take our time in doing that and we’ll explore internal options and options that may present themselves from the international market.”

The big question mark is German midfielder Bastian Schweinsteiger. The 33-year-old is out of contract and is currently in Serbia with his Serbian wife, Ana Ivanovic.

“Our conversations I would characterize are going very well, very positively,” Rodriguez said. “We remain optimistic that Basti and we will reach a mutually satisfactory agreement.

“I won’t put a timeline on it. I think Basti has proven his importance to our club and to our team and that remains a priority to bring him back.”

Along with Schweinsteiger, center back Joao Meira is the only other player not already guaranteed for 2018 that the Fire do not hold an option on.

Rodriguez admitted injuries will also play a part in the decision process. Accam had surgery to repair two hernias in his hip on Tuesday and is expected to be fully healthy by December, but de Leeuw and Djordje Mihailovic will miss a significant chunk of the 2018 season. Mihailovic already had his ACL surgery while de Leeuw's ACL surgery is scheduled for Thursday morning. The absence of those two players, who figured to be regulars next season, for what could be around half of the season alters Rodriguez's plan for 2018.

After a much-improved regular season, which saw the Fire finish with the third best record in the league, was followed up by a one-and-done playoff exit, the key this winter will be how much things should change.

“The arc of this offseason will be that delicate balance,” Rodriguez said. “We know we need to improve. We know we like our core, but change is inevitable. You can’t have both. We can’t fully retain this group and add pieces.”

While coach Veljko Paunovic, who denied any connection to the open Serbia national team job at the start of the press conference, has already been on a scouting trip and has others planned in Europe and South America, he said his first choice is to have the current players come back improved for next season.

“The guys that we decide to come back, they have to come back better than they left,” Paunovic said before calling adding other players Plan B.

So while there are only hints to go on for now, the first dominoes of the Fire’s offseason will take place in about three weeks time.

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.”

Fire all over MLS year-end award finalists

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USA TODAY

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.