Chicago Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic is no stranger to the effects a long break can have on a team’s momentum.
After enjoying some downtime over the weekend's FIFA latest international window, his fourth-place Fire side picked up their preparations for Sunday afternoon’s 2017 regular season home finale on a misty Wednesday afternoon from Toyota Park.
"I think this is a very challenging moment for us,” he said.” We know from when we had the break after the Portland game, we didn’t come back well. (That break) was maybe a little bit longer and a different part of the season, but for me I think we did a better job.”
For Paunovic, hard lessons were learned from a tough stretch of results following a 17-day July respite during the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament. Play resumed with a defeat at New York City FC on July 22nd, which began a stretch of six losses in seven matches. While this most recent break was much shorter, Pauno’s preparation for it was no less significant.
"Our approach was immediately different,” he said. "I’m not saying that I would do something different (than was done upon entering the Gold Cup break), but we learn from that. We had a different approach, we believe an appropriate approach for what's coming. That’s this short two-week stretch and then the playoffs, the most important part of the season.”
A big part of Paunovic’s plan has been getting his side fully fit for the final two regular season matches -- the first of which is Sunday’s home contest with the Philadelphia Union (4 p.m. CT, NBC Sports Chicago Plus) -- and peaking ahead of their Audi 2017 MLS Cup Playoff campaign.
"I think the healthy guys are doing a great job,” Paunovic said. "Last week we did a good job to recover everyone, do some specific work -- especially on preventive workouts -- and then by the end of the week (we) started to build the fitness level again. We’re approaching this week like every other competition that we have. Four days of good work and preparation for Philly. We have to do our best to get three points here.”
The two sides just met for the first time this season back on Sept. 23, a 3-1 Fire defeat at Philadelphia’s Talen Energy Stadium. While there will be a sense of familiarity in Sunday’s match, Paunovic notes the different stakes involved for both sides this go-around.
"We can do everything better,” he said. "Every game is a different game, even when we play the same opponent, especially because of different momentums for both teams. When that (game) happened, both teams were still in the playoff run, and with that kind of pressure. Now it’s different. Now have also some players like Michael (de Leeuw) who are not going to be available. We’ll see what they have, what they bring here. All that, it’s a different approach.”
While the injury report and the projected starting eleven may still fluctuate with a few days left to prepare, Paunovic’s approach to the weekend -- and the remainder of the season -- remains clear.
"When we come back Sunday on the field, we have to show that we took the right advantage of this break and the team is ready to compete for the rest of the season and obviously in the playoffs."
More from Wednesday’s training session:
"There are some progressions. In (Schweinsteiger’s) case — Juninho’s case also — how they’re going to be for the rest of the week. Still we are evaluating. Especially the fitness level has to get better. We’ll see how also the issues and small tightness that they have in the case of Basti and the knee in the case of Juni if they can recover for this game."
On Schweinsteiger and Juninho being ready to play Philadelphia:
"We are working towards that. Obviously we want them to be ready for that game, but we also have to be smart and see if they really can make it and impact the game and can be ready to give the team what we need. If that’s not the case, then we have to evaluate for the next week and the next game. They’re basically in the final phase of recovery, but we have to evaluate on a daily basis and see if they can be available for the game."
On replacing the injured Michael de Leeuw:
"There are some specifics that cannot be replaced. But all these guys that you mentioned and everyone on the team this year when they stepped up and had an opportunity to play, I think they did well and they proved we can count on them. Most important is that they have the trust of the staff and the players. That’s what we saw in their performance this year. Every time guys like Djordje (Mihailovic) and Drew (Conner) and other guys who had opportunity to step in -- (Patrick) Doody -- they did well. They earned the trust of the team and earned the trust of the staff. We believe that we have replacements and we believe that whoever has the opportunity to play that he also has to earn in this week’s training. Based on our opponent, we will make the decision at the end of who is going to play. But we are confident. We believe we have guys who can do the job well and most importantly they are ready and they are fully committed."