As the Chicago Fire prepare to collectively attack the offseason leading into 2018, head coach Veljko Paunovic reiterated his commitment to the club and his desire to bring trophies to the city of Chicago at a press conference on Wednesday morning.
"My purpose when we came here is to build a team that will be a championship team,” he said. “(A team) that will win championships and that will resonate in soccer in the United States with the style, with the mentality, with everything. I focus all my energy and my mind only on that.”
The Fire’s exit out of the 2017 Audi MLS Cup Playoffs on Oct. 25 marked the conclusion of Paunovic’s second season at the helm, one in which he helped steer the Men In Red from a last-place Eastern Conference finish in 2016 to the league’s third-highest points total a year later.
Rumors have swirled regarding Paunovic’s future in Chicago following a recent head coaching vacancy with the Serbian National Team, an opening about which he was asked on Wednesday. A natural connection given both his nationality and his World Cup victory with the nation’s U-20 side in 2015, Paunovic made firm his intent to lead the Chicago Fire to new heights.
"I think I have still a lot of things to do here,” he said. "I’m looking ahead to the next season as a great opportunity for all of us to improve - for me, too, as a coach – and to fulfill my personal goal, 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, and to represent the soccer of the United States around the world."
Now, having had two weeks to reflect on his side’s 2017 campaign, progress was a big key for Paunovic as he shifts his focus toward maximizing the offseason. The club finished with 55 points, the single-biggest year-over-year improvement in MLS after finishing with 31 in 2016. Paunovic himself has been named a finalist for MLS Coach of the Year as a result.
"When we came here, we said that in the process we are going to do, we are going to build a championship program,” he said. "I’m very happy with the progress we had, the consolidation of this project and of our style and the way we played and the mentality. I think that’s something that I’m looking ahead to forge next year. I’m very happy to be here.”
With the lessons of 2017 now learned and an opportunity ahead to improve upon the foundation he and GM Nelson Rodríguez have built, Paunovic’s eyes remain on the ultimate prize.
"I’m just focusing on what I have now, and what I have now is the Chicago Fire and huge desire to get better and to win," he said. "I want to see our team at the top of the league. I want to see our team as soon as possible, next season I want to see our team lifting the trophy."