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The Indian summer of Veljko Paunovic

(Photo: Nicolae Stoian)

The old guy can play.

If there was ever any question—and there was—put it to rest now. Veljko Paunovic has earned a spot on the field, somewhere. He showed it clearly against Columbus on Saturday in his best game of the season.

When Philadelphia Union signed him, all sorts of questions were raised—some by us —and rightly so. He hadn’t played professionally in two years and hadn’t played in 10 games in a season since 2007. He’s 34 years old, which isn’t old for most people but is for a soccer player who turned pro at 17. And with Carlos Ruiz leaving that nasty taste in the mouths of anyone who appreciates attractive soccer (no, lazy poacher fans, this doesn’t apply to you), Paunovic looked like just another guy to push youngsters Danny Mwanga and Jack McInerney further down the depth chart.

Well, Ruiz is gone, the Mwanga-McInerney concerns are allayed (to a degree), and the Union kept the right guy.

A welcome presence

Paunovic makes his teammates better, not worse. He’s a smart player who tries to find the flow of the game and mesh into it. He has good vision, flicking on when necessary or sending the long through ball for runners down the wing. And he also knows how to find the net. No, he’s not a defensive monster, but he’s also not walking around the field as if his best position is an offside position. (See Ruiz, Carlos.) A game plan doesn’t need to be designed specifically for him. He can just go play.

He’s also proving he may be the best aerial threat the Union have ever had.

That last point may not be saying much, considering the Union have never had anyone in the attacking third who offered much in the air, particularly off free kicks and corners. But after Paunovic’s display against Columbus, a team that absolutely owned the Union in the air each time they played last season, credit is due. Obviously, he scored on a header, but all told, he won at least three headers off Union corners, putting another just high of the crossbar and another a little wide.

Are there flaws in his game? Sure. He was whistled for five fouls on Saturday, for example. He’s not fast, and he’s not the creative presence we might get in Freddy Adu, who needs to see some time at center attacking midfielder and has greater potential at this point in their careers.

Paunovic’s Indian summer?

Naturally, you can point to Paunovic’s age. How long will he last?

Well, consider this: Maybe taking the last two years off was the best thing Paunovic could have done.

People often point to athletes in their 30s and highlight the way their bodies slow down from the progressive creeping of age and the cumulative beating of so many years on the field.

But there have been cases of athletes taking time away from the game in their prime and coming back physically recharged, smarter, and matured, with new perspective and a different approach to their sport.

Philly fans need look no further than Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Michael Vick, who sat out three seasons in his late 20s before finally blossoming in his 30s into the player scouts thought he could be when he came out of Virginia Tech 10 years ago. From boxer George Foreman and tennis star Andre Agassi to Olympic skater Katarina Witt (no, this entire post wasn’t just an excuse to look at Katarina Witt photos, really), there are plenty of cases of athletes who, like the weather pattern we call Indian summer, bring back the beautiful weather after a period during which a cold, long winter seemed to have set in.

Is it harder to do in soccer than in other sports? In some ways, perhaps, due to the ridiculously high level of aerobic conditioning required, but in other ways, it’s probably easier, considering you can move to a less competitive league and still play at a high professional level. However much Major League Soccer has improved—yes, it’s come leaps and bounds, and I prefer watching the Union to European soccer (sans Ruiz, that is)—MLS is not La Liga, where Paunovic spent the prime years of his career. But it is a good, young, second tier league well on its way to becoming permanently stable, relevant, and consistently entertaining.

For Paunovic, it may just be a place for reinvention, where you rediscover a game you loved and show you still have something to offer it.


  1. I love me some old serbian

  2. I agree that he has been playing well but as a whole I am not too happy about it because we are still putting out inferior lineups and formations.
    As good as he has been, we still have Mapp and Le Toux and Miggy starting. We still have our GK punting long balls to a team that can’t play in the air. We have no short passing game. Our fullbacks can’t find space to play offense.
    I don’t mean to be a downer but right now this whole team is a downer.

    • Can’t disagree about the lineup choices, but that’s been the complaint all season. Maybe come September, we’ll see something steady as the team goes down the playoff stretch. By then, it’ll be hard to argue about saving guys’ legs for the playoffs.

  3. I always had a good feeling about the acquisition of Paunovic. I can’t, specifically, say why, but I liked the signing.

    Also, you had me until you mentioned Vick. I then threw up in my mouth a little.

  4. i’m sorry but you’re a little early for this bandwagon. not being ruiz doesn’t make someone good.

    i’m not saying he’s bad by any means. i mean hell if you look at the piece yous put out just the other day paunovic is second to ruiz on this team for goals this season. but i don’t know what union you’ve been watching but i’ve seen one demonstrably worse since ruiz left.

    • Things were far from always rosy when Ruiz was here. If he had been transferred 4 weeks earlier no one woulda been complaining about it.

    • Being early for the bandwagon just means you were right first. Check back in a month, and we’ll see.

  5. i’m not saying things were always rosy. what i’m saying is that the union’s situation at forward is a mess and that ruiz being gone has taken away one a few players on this team who just straight up score goals. paunuvic’s 3 goals don’t yet deserve the bandwagon. if he keeps up the pace AND the union start actually playing better then perhaps it will be time for that. so far we have half the goals tallied at about the same rate as ruiz but we have a team that hasn’t won in 5 games since ruiz has left.

    • have to agree was easy to hate ruiz but he was this offensively challenged soccer teams best and at times only finisher and truth be told i doubt they would’ve gone this many games without 3 points if he was still on the team

    • Is our striker situation really a mess? Or is it a case of two young players not being able to build chemistry, compounded by a revolving door of inept midfield tactics and ineffective midfield starters?

      I find it amazing Ruiz got the benefit of the doubt and got to start every game, even after some totally invisible performances, yet Jack Mac and Mwanga must feel like they are playing musical chairs every week.

      I just simply refuse to blame young players, who have put in some REALLY good performances, when the next week they are on the bench and/or have a new partner up top or a new tactical assignment.

      I refuse to blame these young players or criticize them until Jack Mac and Mwanga get a fair run of games in to prove their skill and ability to mesh.

      • ruiz certainly go no benefit of the doubt here. ha. from nowak sure but ruiz was also getting better as the season went on so i’ll give nowak the benefit of the doubt on that one. i agree about the midfield being a mess. i wasn’t criticizing any of the young forwards just saying that it’s not time to hop on the paunuvic bandwagon.

      • i will also say that no one else of the forwards has stepped up.

      • Ruiz was plenty invisible in games early in the season yet still started the next game.

        Whereas Jack Mac and Mwanga have put in good performances only to sit the next game. And they’ve put in mediocre performances and not been given a chance to bounce back the next week.

        No one can step up in that kind of environment.

      • not so sure i’d agree that jack has earned a spot in the starting line-up. i still like him as a sub though. i agree mwanga has earned minutes but he still needs to do something with them. once again, i wasn’t ripping either of them. that said there’s been a season(2 arguably) of practice and this year there have been 10 games without ruiz. there’s been time to step up. the toronto game is one thing but outside of that where are we at?

  6. the old serb has been a pleasant surprise but 90 min a game thats crazy .. thanx for katerina link hmm

  7. James, I appreciate your passion for the Union but I really dont think you know what your talking about

  8. haha los with a dagger. But opinions are just that. I tend to disagree w James too but i cant find fault w wanting more pt for the youngsters. That said, I am really down on Mwanga. He needs to be more assertive and demanding. After watching Renteria and then Heineman(?) cause our back line all kinds of problems, I’m left wondering why we dont have any strikers like that willing to stick their neck out and get physical. This is a physical league (understatement), and a lineup w Mwanga Jackmac Letoux Torres and Adu wont cut it. Therefore Pauno. He should be starting up top right now. Neon Keon also has earned a spot on the wing opposite letoux imo. His headers are dangerous. I like:
    Williams Valdez Califf Garfan
    LeToux Adu Carroll Keon
    Mwanga Pauno

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