Veljko Paunovic

No quit despite skid: Focus on "nine finals," not next year

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Veljko Paunovic insisted he and his players are focused on the Chicago Fire’s remaining “nine finals” as the coach refuses to give up the fight to lead his team into the postseason for the second year running.

The Fire’s narrow 1-0 defeat to the high-flying New York Red Bulls (15-6-2) — their seventh straight in league play — took their record to 6-14-5 and leaves them in 10th spot in the Eastern Conference, seven points below the playoff line with just nine games to play.

The Men in Red saw their hopes of hosting this year’s U.S. Open Cup final evaporate following Wednesday’s 3-0 semifinal loss at the Philadelphia Union, and Paunovic revealed he and the players had an open and honest meeting on Friday where one and all committed to give everything for the nine games that remain this year.

“Yesterday in this room we had a meeting where we all committed that we will play all the games until the end giving our best,” Paunovic said in his postgame press conference. “No matter what happens, we will give our best. I saw the change today and I think not only the attitude, the focus, the urgency, organization and that look in the eyes of our guys was different. Nine games, nine finals, we’ll give, in everyone of them, our best. For sure we’re going to change this curse of losing games.”

Paunovic’s starting lineup Saturday raised a few eyebrows, with top scorer Nemanja Nikolic and the influential Aleksandar Katai both on the bench, with Luis Solignac leading the line in what started as a 3-4-2-1 formation, with Bastian Schweinsteiger again deployed in the center of a back three. However, dismissing the suggestion that he was already looking ahead to next season, Paunovic confirmed that the team’s midweek exertions on the road had taken their toll on the attacking duo.

“After the game against Philly, I think a lot of the players were emotionally drained, and some of them are Niko and Katai,” Paunovic said. “So we wanted to find a balance between the guys who are ready to go and also our game plan was to play as you could see very physical, very simple and try to attack behind their back.

“I think we did it very well in the first half. The plan was, once we had the opportunity to bring the guys from the bench who could change the game. We had a bunch of them today and definitely they brought change. We were close to tying the game. Unfortunately we had today to play with a burden of urgency, which is never easy for any team.”

Captain Dax McCarty, back in the side for the second game in a row after overcoming a hamstring injury, was his typical busy self, but admitted it was his concession of possession in the 55th minute that allowed Daniel Royer to play Bradley Wright-Phillips in for the game’s decisive moment.

“We didn’t deserve to lose this game tonight,” McCarty told MLSsoccer.com. “I thought that the effort and the heart and the character were on the field. I don’t think anybody’s looking towards next year. I think everyone’s very focused on nine games left and however small our chances are to make the playoffs, we’re not going to give up.

“Our fans deserve more than us looking towards next year. We owe it to ourselves to have a little bit of pride and to play until there’s absolutely no chance of us playing in the postseason. So tonight was on me; I’ll take full responsibility for the goal they scored. That’s something you just can’t do against them. It’s frustrating, but no, we’re not looking towards next year.”

Shane Murray is a contributor to MLSsoccer.com.