CHICAGO (Nov. 24, 2015) – The Chicago Fire Soccer Club announced today that Veljko Paunovic, who led Serbia to the FIFA U-20 World Cup championship, will be the Men in Red’s new head coach. Paunovic, 38, has coached Serbia’s U-20’s since August of 2012, one year after he ended a 16-year playing career that spanned several top leagues, including one season in Major League Soccer.
“In the face of stiff competition from other global soccer clubs, we are extremely fortunate to have secured our first choice, Veljko Paunovic, as our head coach,” said Fire general manager Nelson Rodríguez. “We conducted a thorough search process and, over its course, Pauno consistently graded highest across all of our desired characteristics. He is a champion, teacher of the game and man of great principle and integrity.”
Paunovic’s Serbian squad was noted for its resiliency during the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup. After losing their first game, Serbia defeated Mali and Mexico 2-0 to finish atop Group D. Paunovic then navigated the knockout phase with four matches that went to extra time. They opened with a 2-1 result against Hungary, advanced past the United States in penalty kicks before moving to the final with a 2-1 win over Mali. In the final, Serbia upset powerhouse Brazil 2-1 to earn the country its first world title at any level as an independent nation.
In addition to his World Cup successes, Paunovic guided Serbia to third place at the 2014 UEFA U-19 European Championship. His squad finished on top of both of its qualification groups to reach the final tournament. Serbia then drew with Ukraine and Germany and beat Bulgaria to reach the knockout round. Paunovic’s team gave eventual runners-up Portugal a match, but ultimately bowed out in penalty kicks in the semifinals. Quickly recognized as a dynamic leader and strong strategist, Paunovic was also brought on to work with the senior national team, assisting with their organization and communication across all levels.
“I want to thank Andrew Hauptman, Nelson Rodríguez and the whole executive team of the Chicago Fire, for choosing me, among other great candidates, for the coaching position,” said Paunovic. “I am very excited and enthusiastic to start working with the team, to meet the people and fans, who I know are very passionate and loyal to the club. This is the opportunity that I was looking for, to work with the right people, in the right time and the right place.”
“I have a huge amount of energy, knowledge and experience to deliver to our team and our community,” he added. “Soccer is a lifestyle that I live and preach my whole life. I love this kind of challenge, where you have to build a champion by giving your best in every moment. I see the Chicago Fire as a hurt lion ready to unleash all its power.”
Paunovic holds a UEFA PRO coaching license as well as a Sporting Director degree from the Royal Spanish Football Federation. He speaks six languages, including: English, Spanish, Serbian, Macedonian, Russian and German. Paunovic also spent nine months as a UEFA Champions League analyst for TVE in Spain.
“Pauno and I have known each other since before he actually joined MLS,” Rodríguez continued. “I know that he has been preparing himself meticulously for this opportunity. Having played in MLS, he understands the nuances of our League and is a supreme evaluator of talent. Combined with his international perspective, we believe that he is the perfect coach for the next stage of MLS’s evolution.”
As a player, Paunovic enjoyed a long, successful career with 11 teams in Serbia, Spain, Germany, Russia and the United States. He racked up 76 goals in 358 appearances over that time, and earned two caps with the Serbia and Montenegro national team.
Like his father, Blagoje, Veljko signed his first professional contract with Serbia’s Partizan. He made 13 appearances during that debut campaign in 1994-95. Soon after, Paunovic pursued a career in Spain, signing with Marbella for one season. He next joined Atletico Madrid, where he would win a La Liga title and the Copa del Rey in 1996. A loan in 1998 led to another milestone moment, as Paunovic won the Spanish Super Cup with Mallorca, besting FC Barcelona 3-2 on aggregate. After seven more seasons in Spain, as well as stops in Hannover (Bundesliga) and Rubin Kazan (Russian Premier League, Paunovic ultimately returned to where it all began in 2008. He made nine appearances for Partizan to close the season, helping them to a league championship and Serbian Cup. Paunovic retired following the 2008 season, but returned in 2011 as a member of the Philadelphia Union.