Veljko Paunovic's coaching tendencies starting to emerge


Veljko Paunovic's coaching tendencies starting to emerge

Every coach instills an identity into his or her team.

Tom Thibodeau’s Bulls were known for high effort and defense. Phil Jackson was known for the triangle offense. Ozzie Guillen’s White Sox took on his loose demeanor. U.S. Soccer under Jurgen Klinsmann is known for, well, maybe that’s not the best example.

The question is what is the Fire’s identity under Veljko Paunovic? What does a Veljko Paunovic coached team look like? What is unique about it?

It’s only been four matches, but Paunovic is starting to show what he is as a coach with the Fire.

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Building out of the back

This is something Paunovic talked about repeatedly when he was hired and throughout the preseason. He wanted his team to build out of the back, and it proved costly when the team executed that strategy in the windy season opener.

However, the Fire are starting to figure out how to build out of the back more effectively. The second, and maybe more important, part is to link that build up play into scoring chances and goals. Still, the team isn’t relying on as many long balls from defenders as it used to.

Formation changes

Paunovic’s willingness to change formations between matches and within matches has stood out early on. Through most of the preseason the Fire stuck to a 4-2-3-1 formation which Paunovic said is the team’s base formation. After starting with that setup for just one half in the first match of the season, Paunovic has gone away from it regularly.

From the second half of the New York City FC match on March 6, when Jonathan Campbell subbed on, through the Columbus match two weeks later, the Fire shifted to a three center back formation. The Fire defended with five for the second half against NYCFC and for full matches in Orlando and against Columbus. Paunovic said after the Columbus match the formation was a 3-5-2 and the wing backs needed to play higher up the field to help with possession play.

In the 1-0 win against Philadelphia most recently, Paunovic went back to a four-man back line in a formation he called a 4-2-3-1. That looked more like a 4-4-1-1 at times. Regardless of the specifics of the formations, Paunovic has shown a willingness to switch tactics frequently.

“I think we go into a match thinking what’s the best way we’re going to be able to defend and also attack,” midfielder Arturo Alvarez said. “I think it varies, but we’re getting there. I think it’s good for a team to adapt to different formations.”

[MORE:Second NYCFC match gives Fire chance to display improvement]

Defense first

Perhaps this is more related to the personnel Paunovic has available, but the Fire appear to be a team built around defense first.

“You have to build your team with a good defense and then improve from that point,” Paunovic said after the 0-0 draw with Columbus on March 19.

Since the disastrous defensive performance in the first match of the season, giving up three first half goals in a 4-3 loss, the Fire have allowed just one goal in three matches. Part of that could be put on the emergence of the rookie Campbell, who didn’t play in the first half of the opener, but it also appears that Paunovic wants a strong defense to build around before addressing the attack.

“I think if you watch the games you can tell we’re pretty structured defensively,” midfielder Michael Stephens said. “Everybody knows where they’re supposed to be, their roles, and then we build from there. So we build from the back. We’ve got two shutouts in a row so I think if we play strong defensively and let our offense build off of that and continue to improve our offense then we’re going to be in good shape.”

What else?

One more thing that can be learned from Sunday’s upcoming match at NYCFC will be how Paunovic adjusts to an opponent he has faced before, especially one the Fire faced so recently. Will Paunovic come out the same way in Yankee Stadium as he did in the home opener with only minor adjustments or will he change things completely to give the opponent a different look?

Paunovic’s tenure with the Fire is just starting so there will be plenty new things to learn about his tendencies, but it’s clear that some of them are already showing.

Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon


Fire sign veteran MLS forward Alan Gordon

As far as notorious players in MLS with a history of scoring big goals, Alan Gordon is one of the first names on that list.

The Fire signed the 36-year-old forward on Friday, continuing to add depth to a roster that appeared paper thin throughout the preseason. Gordon, who had been on trial with the Fire for part of the preseason and even after the season opener, signed a one-year deal.

Gordon adds plenty of experience from being in the league since 2004 and having scored 55 goals with five different teams. For the past few years he has been used primarily as a substitute, but has still maintained his reputation for scoring goals late in games.

At 6-foot-3 he brings plenty of size and strength to the team and is one of the best players on headers in the league. Last season the Fire failed to score directly off a set piece, which was both due to consistently poor service from corner kicks and a lack of players adept at finishing them off. Gordon should give the Fire a late-game option in that area.

Elliot Collier had impressed the Fire enough to earn a contract as a third-round pick and an international player and even came off the bench in the opening loss to Sporting Kansas City, but it appears the team wanted more experience at forward with Gordon.

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

Wild season opener shows plenty of things to work on for Fire

If you were looking for entertainment, goals, plot twists and storylines, the Fire’s season opener had all of those boxes checked.

What it didn’t have was even a point for the hosts against Sporting Kansas City on Saturday at Toyota Park.

The first half showed a Fire team which very much looked like the “incomplete” roster that general manager Nelson Rodriguez referenced just before the season. KC led 2-0 and the Fire failed to get a shot on target, showing a lack of chance creation and any semblance of a dangerous attack.

The second half showed a Fire attack which was capable of turning the heat up on the visitors, but also a defense which couldn’t defend. Sporting's 4-3 win revealed that there’s plenty of work to do for the Fire to resemble the team that finished third in the MLS regular season last year.

“Especially in the first half we saw that we weren’t ready to compete with a team that had an advantage that they had one competition game before us,” coach Veljko Paunovic said. “That was the main difference in the first half, but the adjustment in the second half was tremendous. I think just showing that we can score three goals that quickly and create even more opportunities was a positive.”

However, Paunovic wasn’t about to let his team off the hook by only speaking about positives.

“What we learned today is that we have to get better on every side of the game and in every aspect of the game,” he said. “We are not there. We didn’t have a good game. I think overall a lot of innocent and naive mistakes.”

After trailing 2-0 at halftime, the Fire revved things up in the final 25 minutes and Bastian Schweinsteiger keyed the first goal with a slick assist to newcomer Aleksandar Katai. Nemanja Nikolic showed the scoring instincts and finishing ability that won him the league scoring title a year ago by scoring two more goals to give the Fire the lead in the 82nd minute.

Then it all fell apart, with two KC goals within four minutes of Nikolic giving the Fire the lead. Dax McCarty, your thoughts?

“You’re 10 minutes away from the headline and the storyline being Chicago Fire show great character, make a fantastic comeback, win the game 3-2 and yet here we are sitting here, somehow losing that game, which is insane,” McCarty said. “It’s totally insane.”

The defensive struggles, which Paunovic pointed out mirrored last year’s early playoff exit in a 4-0 loss, will need to get resolved internally. Johan Kappelhof, Brandon Vincent and Matt Polster all started on a competent defense last year and McCarty and Schweinsteiger helped play damage control in midfield. This isn’t what the weakness of the team was supposed to be yet after one game, it’s all anyone on the team could talk about.

“We gave up four goals,” Kappelhof said. “That’s not good. Simple.”

While more additions may be coming in-season, as Rodriguez has mentioned, and injuries haven’t allowed the Fire to start 2018 fresh, this game wasn’t a good sign for what’s to come for the 2018 Fire. A lack of any offensive creation in the first half and a lack of defensive concentration, as Paunovic put it, throughout the game showed a team that has plenty of pock-marks currently.

“We don’t know how to defend, quite frankly," McCarty said. "From back to front, front to back, the defending aspect of our game was pretty poor. A lot of things to learn."

The good news is even if the Fire take some time to correct the errors from Saturday’s season opener, MLS is a forgiving league. A majority of the league, 12 of 23 teams, makes the playoffs and league-wide parity means teams can go through slumps and still end in good standing. A year ago, the Fire lost six games out of seven and still had the third best record in the league. It’s OK if the team takes time to iron out some organizational issues defensively, just don’t take too long.