Veljko Paunovic already making most of opportunity in MLS
One man will be more motivated than most when the MLS All-Stars take on back-to-back Champions League winners and La Liga holders Real Madrid in Chicago on Wednesday evening.
All-Stars coach Veljko Paunovic is known to U.S. fans as the young progressive coach who has so impressively turned the Chicago Fire into real contenders for the MLS title this season.
Not too many might recall that long before coming to America, "Pauno" scored against Zinedine Zidane's "Galacticos" Madrid side, as an Atletico Madrid player in a La Liga derbi back in 2004.
The former Serbia and Montenegro international learned all about competing with the best during his years at Atletico, and although he knows the All-Stars will be underdogs at Soldier Field, he told ESPNFC.com in an exclusive interview that he was aiming for victory against Sergio Ramos, Gareth Bale and company.
"All the players in the world dream of playing and scoring against Real Madrid, especially at Atletico," Paunovic said. "For me that was a special day. Now, as a coach you cannot score, but to have the opportunity to coach the MLS All-Stars is a fantastic opportunity. I want a team which is passionate, goes out to perform well, to put on a show for the fans, and to win. To compete must be our mindset for the game."
Wednesday's game marks another landmark in what has been a winding career for Pauno, still just 39. The son of former Yugoslavia (and Oakland Stompers) midfielder Blagoje Paunovic, Veljko was born in what is now Macedonia, and came through at Partizan Belgrade in the early-1990s, a historically difficult time in the Balkans.
"I came to Spain very young, when in our country we had a difficult situation, with wars and social problems," he said. "The Atletico scouts saw me play. I had played for the national team, so I was a good young prospect for them. They loaned me out in the first years and then I started to play for the first team."
Still a teenager, Paunovic played 19 times as an Atletico squad captained by Diego Simeone won the double of La Liga and Copa del Rey in 1995-96. He says that team were "very similar" to today's super-committed Rojiblanco side coached by his old friend.
"We had a great coach too at that time," he said, referencing Radomir Antic. "We had a fantastic locker room, young talented players who wanted to win, who were striving for the same things through the whole year. Atletico have that formula again now with Simeone as coach, with his energy and passion. He was fantastic as a teammate to learn from, and now the same as a coach."
Former France international Zidane is another contemporary who has thrived on the bench, winning two Champions Leagues and a Liga title in his first 18 months in the job.
"There was no doubt that a player with Zidane's profile was going to become a great coach," Paunovic said. "The only question was whether he had both the patience and the passion for this job, and then to pick the right opportunity. And he got those things right. He has it all to be one of the most successful coaches in the world, ever."
Paunovic's playing career never quite hit the heights of Zidane's, but few do. The attacking midfielder or forward was a valued team member at Partizan, Atletico, Marbella, Mallorca, Oviedo, Tenerife, Hannover, Getafe, Rubin Kazan, Almeria and Philadelphia, while playing twice for the Serbia and Montenegro national senior team.
Before he retired, Paunovic already had gained a UEFA PRO coaching license, plus a sporting director degree from the Spanish Football Federation. He started out working with the Serbian international youth teams, guiding them to a shocking victory over Brazil in the 2015 Under-20 World Cup final. After a rocky debut campaign in charge of the Fire in 2016, his current team are now serious contenders for the MLS crown.
"Relationships are the most important," Paunovic said when asked about his coaching philosophy. "The atmosphere in the locker room is the basis for success with any team. Everything else, how we train, how we prepare, how we live together, the pieces easily come together if we all get along together."
The Fire's success earned them four players on the All-Stars squad: Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty, Nemanja Nikolic and Johan Kappelhof. Paunovic has little time to blend these together with players from other MLS clubs, including US national team stars Michael Bradley (Toronto FC) and Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids).
"We don't have much time to train and prepare, but we can create relationships and a good group in the two or three days we are spending together," he said. "That is our fundamental. There will be video sessions and team-building meetings. We have good players, experienced players, so it is going to be easier, but it is very important that we are all on the same page."
The MLS roster also includes former Real Madrid star Kaka (now of Orlando City), as well as others with experience of facing Los Blancos in La Liga, including ex-Barcelona and Atletico goalgetter David Villa (NYCFC) and former Blaugrana playmaker Giovani dos Santos (LA Galaxy).
"We have players who have experience in the past playing both for and against Real Madrid," Paunovic said. "That is going to be helpful for us. We have a fantastic opportunity to play against one of the best teams in the world, ever. So we are in a very good spot. We have a lot to win in this game, and we can show what we are capable of."
The MLS All-Stars should not lack for ambition when they run out at Soldier Field on Wednesday. Their fast-emerging coach has come a long way, and making a mark against Zidane again would ensure more people take notice, both in the United States and Europe.
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan