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.

Manchester City brings Premier League trophy to Chicago ahead of preseason game in Soldier Field

NBC Sports Chicago

Manchester City brings Premier League trophy to Chicago ahead of preseason game in Soldier Field

Manchester City is coming off a season in which it dominated the English Premier League to the tune of a record 100-point season.

City is kicking off the preseason of its title defense in Chicago. City takes on Borussia Dortmund at Soldier Field on Friday night.

The last time the reigning Premier League champions were in Chicago was when rivals Manchester United came to Soldier to take on the Chicago Fire in 2011.

The Citizens won’t have the full arsenal of stacked stars for its U.S. tour, which also includes stops in New York and Miami as part of the International Champions Cup. Many of the team’s best players are getting a break after playing in the World Cup. Belgium’s Kevin De Bruyne, one of the stars of the tournament, is one of six Man City players to reach the semifinals.

Paul Dickov, who played for City for nearly 10 years between 1996 and 2008, is on tour with the team and talked about City’s preparations.

“The reason the clubs want to come to the States and play in International Champions Cup is the facilities are fantastic, the training facilities, the hotels, the treatment they get and just give them the best preparation going into what’s going to be a hard season,” Dickov said. “Nobody has won the Premier League back-to-back titles for nearly 10 years now so it’s going to be tough. Coming here and being able to prepare the way they can in the United States is going to put them on a long way to regain the title again.”

City brought the Premier League trophy to Wrigley Field on Thursday for the Cubs-Cardinals game. Dickov got to throw out the first pitch. The Scotsman threw a strike, much to his relief.

“I was quite calm beforehand, but I must admit when I got out there and I had to walk out there both hands started getting a bit sweaty,” he said. “I managed to make it and I got a fantastic reception off the Chicago Cubs fans so thank you to everybody at Chicago Cubs for having me there. It was great. Something I’ll never forget.”

Dickov compared Cubs fans to City fans in the way both teams struggled for a long time before finding success.

“They stuck by us through thick and thin when things weren’t as great,” Dickov said of Man City fans. “I suppose it’s a little bit like the Chicago Cubs here in Chicago. The fans turn out, they get 30-40 thousand, great atmosphere, back their team.”

While promoting the game, the Premier League trophy made multiple stops in Chicago, including with the White Sox at Guaranteed Rate Field on an off day.

City also took the trophy and new signing Riyad Mahrez, who just joined Man City from 2016 champions Leicester City, to Haas Park in Logan Square. Haas Park includes a soccer field donated by Manchester City and the American embassy of the United Arab Emirates in 2012.

“The outcome of it has been great,” Dickov said. “Thousands of children and families benefiting, not just from the soccer part of it, but the education program as well. To be down there the other day for the full day and seeing the joy in the kids face seeing soccer here and the other activities that are on is great because, yeah, football is fantastic, soccer is fantastic and when you’re out there and you play you want to win, but it’s important, especially from Manchester City’s point of view, the city and the community. The stuff that they do off the field is second to none and it’s giving something back.”

Chicago Fire permanently sign midfielder Aleksandar Katai


Chicago Fire permanently sign midfielder Aleksandar Katai

The Fire have secured the transfer of midfielder Aleksandar Katai from Deportivo Alavés of the Spanish La Liga, the team announced Wednesday afternoon.

This season’s breakout playmaker has been signed with Chicago through 2019, with a 2020 club option. Before the transfer, Katai was on loan from Alavés, which was set to expire after July.

The Serbian player has emerged as one of the most important pieces of the Fire’s offense this season. Since joining the club on Feb. 6, Katai has scored eight goals in 18 league matches, tying forward Nemanja Nikolić for the most on the team. Katai also has three assists in 2018.

The 27-year-old’s biggest game of the year came against New York City FC last month when he scored two goals to lead the Fire to 3-2 victory. His production this season in the MLS has been much more significant than it was in 23 matches with Alavés, where Katai only tallied three goals and four assists.

His transfer fee is unknown but, according to Sam Stejskal of, he will be a “Targeted Allocation Money player” for the rest of this season and will not be a Designated Player until 2019. Whatever the official price was, acquiring Katai for a lengthier amount of time seemed like a must.

Throughout this season, the Fire were rumored to be in talks with legendary Spanish striker Fernando Torres. On Tuesday, he signed with Sagan Tosu, a Japanese club. The Fire signed Katai the next day, showing that the team was possibly waiting for Torres to leave the market.

Chicago will face the Philadelphia Union Wednesday night at Toyota Park, where Katai will look to continue his impressive season.