Veljko Paunovic: from failure in MLS to his first Liga MX final
The Serbian coach took the reins of Chivas Guadalajara for the Liga MX Clausura 2023 and is now facing in his first final as a DT in Mexico.
This weekend, Chivas Guadalajara have the chance to be crowned Liga MX champions - something that has not happened since the Clausura 2017, when, led by Matías Almeyda, they lifted the trophy after beating Tigres UANL. The man in charge of the side this time is Veljko Paunovic, who has only been at the club for a few months - he arrived at the end of October to to take over the project from Fernando Hierro. Paunovic gained his coaching license in 2012, this his first experience in the Liga MX and he is already confronting a final.
It’s extraordinary that the Serbian coach has guided Guadalajara to the pinnacle event of Mexican football in his debut season, but even more surprising that is that is making history in Mexico after his experience as manager of the Chicago Fire in Major League Soccer.
Starting out, success in Serbia
Paunovic began his coaching career in charge of Serbia’s youth teams (Under-18, Under-19 and Under-20). His first success was guiding the Under-18s to their first U20 World Cup in 2015 as his side beat Brazil 1-2 in the final in Auckland. His triumphant squad included players such as Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, Vanja Milinkovic-Savic, Nemanja Maksimovic and Mijat Gacinovic.
On their way to being crowned world champions, ‘Pauno’ and Serbia defeated their counterpart from Mexico in the group stage - a strong side that featured the likes of Hirving ‘Chucky’ Lozano, Víctor ‘Pocho’ Guzmán, Orbelín Pineda and Erick Gutiérrez. Later in the tournament, they eliminated the United States in a penalty shootout in the quarter finals. Just a few months later, he found himself working in North America as coach at Chicago Fire.
Failure in Chicago
The Fire are one of the historic MLS franchises and Paunovic’s mission was to bring them back to prominence in the North American league. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. In three of his four seasons at the club, the team failed to make it to the playoffs and in the one when they did make it to the postseason they were eliminated in the first round (0-4 vs NY Red Bulls).
In the 2016 season, the Fire finished bottom of the Eastern Conference table as the worst team in MLS. The following year, they were third in their conference, in 2018 they flirted again with the lower end of the standings and in 2019 they missed out on the playoffs by finishing eighth behind the New England Revolution.
Back on track with Chivas
After spending a year and a half in England with Reading, Paunovic landed at Akron Stadium institution at the end of 2022 tasked with giving Chivas a clear identity and hopefully, lead them to fight for the Liga MX title. Pauno, who was born in Serbia, but naturalized Spanish, did not take long to achieve it.
In his first tournament at the helm of the Rojiblancos, Paunovic has made it to his first final and did so after a great regular season in which his team registered 34 points to automatically qualify for the Liguilla. In the quarter finals, they eliminated Atlas in yet another edition of the Clásico Tapatío and in the semi-finals they did the same with América in an equally exciting Clásico de México.