Veljko Paunovic spent, as a player, more than 10 years in Spanish football, playing for the likes of Marbella, Mallorca, Real Oviedo, Tenerife, Getafe, Almeria and of course his beloved Atletico Madrid. He spent eight years at Vicente Calderon, between the ‘B’ team and first team, even spending time in La Segunda when Atleti were relegated in the 2000-01 season.
Now retired, he took the reins of Chicago Fire in November 2015 after he guided his native Serbia to the Under-20 World Cup, and Football Espana caught up with him after his team suffered a 2-1 defeat to the Vancouver Whitecaps on Wednesday.
MLS is not a new experience for Paunovic as he played for Philadelphia Union back in 2011. However, the Serbian highlights the difference between the League then and now. “There’s a lot more quality in the League now, the whole structure has changed and improved,” he noted.
“[MLS] has improved on all levels, even the fans’ level of understanding has grown, generating a higher demand for good football and forcing everyone to make a greater effort, which is good.”
Paunovic is certainly right about this as we see the likes of Sebastian Giovinco, Giovani dos Santos and David Villa shining in the United States instead of Europe. However, one thing where MLS is vastly different from the European Leagues is the calendar.
For example, the Fire – on four different occasions so far – have had to wait more than 10 days between matches, yet they are now set to play four games in 10 days. “This is not an excuse for us at all, we just get used to the situation,” commented Paunovic. “You take advantage [of the time] to work on different aspects. But when you are in a competition, you want to play. I am already thinking about the next game.”
Altetico formed an alliance with the Fire back in 2011 as part of their plans for global expansion, but Paunovic insisted that his presence in the Windy City was just a co-incidence. “It had nothing to do with me being here. But I do know that [Atleti CEO Miguel Angel] Gil Marin and our owner have a good relationship.”
Paunovic has always shown his love for his former team, and even with the distance he still keeps a close eye on La Liga. “I am always watching the Atletico games, and if they play while we are travelling then I record the match. I am always listening to the Spanish radio online to follow the games,” he revealed.
“I’m enjoying this season a lot and I’m very proud of the team. Now we have a chance for revenge in the [Champions League] final and we need to take advantage.”
But who would he take from Atleti to play under him in Chicago? “I have several friends, former teammates and too much admiration for so many of their players to choose just one,” he laughed when asked, before citing a particularly helpful ex-colleague.
“[Diego Simeone and I] have seen each other a couple of times and we also text each other. I’m very grateful for his advice to new Coaches and, for sure, he has been influential for me.”
Image courtesy via Twitter @javierjotah