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Season review: Veljko Paunovic

Featured image: Daniel Gajdamowicz

Editor’s note: At the end of the 2010 season, we posted a series of season reviews of every Philadelphia Union player. Over the next several weeks PSP continues with a review of the 2011 season.

In an effort to prop up a struggling attack, the Union announced the signing of Serbian forward Veljko Paunovic on 13 June 2011. The signing immediately brought up concerns among the Union fan base because, while Paunovic enjoyed a prolific career in Spain’s top flight, he had not suited up for a professional match in three years. For all the talk of youth development, it was hard to see what role the Serbian international was meant to fill with Union. Especially with Carlos Ruiz still in the picture, multiple strikers in their 30s would push Danny Mwanga and Jack McInerney further from the consistent minutes young players require to develop.

But, Peter Nowak chose to go with both veteran strikers on multiple occasions and Paunovic quickly became one of his favorite pieces to deploy in attack. Paunovic’s physicality made him a far more appropriate target forward than Ruiz and with the Union’s “fluid” tactics, both Le Toux and the Guatemalan found themselves running off of Paunovic.

While life was good when the Serbian remained high up the pitch in attack, things were equally bad when he dropped into midfield, where he struggled to keep up with the flow of play, drifting in and out of the game like a striker, while occupying valuable real estate in the center of the pitch. By season’s end though, given his consistently gritty performances and, in the absence of Keon Daniel, his ability to provide the Union’s sole aerial threat, Paunovic had secured himself as a fan favorite .

High Point

With Chivas USA visiting PPL Park for Paunovic’s second home start, he tallied the Union’s first before setting the table for Carlos Ruiz to grab the second. Ultimately, Danny Mwanga would secure all three points for the home side but fans began to appreciate the hard, physical nature of Paunovic’s game. While he had been ineffective in his first start in Vancouver, and only slightly better against Kansas City, Paunovic appeared far more comfortable in his third appearance for the club, displaying the unique blend of physicality and deft touch that would become Paunovic’s signature for the Union.

Low Point

The end of the season. Despite his best efforts, it was plain to see that Paunovic was not a 90 minute player. Given his age, the amount of time he spent away from the game at the highest level, and the fact that he did not benefit from a preseason to build up his fitness, this did not come as a surprise. Yet, the Union coaching staff insisted on playing Paunovic for too long, causing him to fade late in matches, as well as lose efficacy, as the 2011 campaign wore towards its conclusion. This is hardly the player’s fault, but his legs simply could not keep pace as the season ground to a close. After his last goal against Columbus on 20 August, he had played over 600 minutes without finding the back of the net.

Strengths

Aerial prowess, touch on the ball, and leadership. Much has been made of the Union’s failures in the air. Whether it is in attack or defensively, coming up second best on headed ball situations is too often a foregone conclusion. But not with Paunovic. Despite his lack of imposing size — he stands six feet even — the Union man showed complete disregard for his body and personal well-being as he threw his body into aerial challenges, consistently fighting to improve his position and climb above opponents to put his head on everything. As one of few veterans in the attack, younger players would do well to follow his gritty example as they mold their own games. With leaders like Mondragon, Califf and Valdes propping up the defense, Paunovic served as a sage, old head for the youthful band of attackers the Union possess, often pulling aside young players to offer a word or calm down a volatile situation.

With the ball on the deck, Paunovic displayed a full range of tricks that remind fans why he was a mainstay at clubs like Atletico Madrid, Tenerife and Getafe for over a decade. His soft touch made him an integral part of the Union build up game and while he only tallied three assists to go along with three goals, much of the team’s attack flowed directly through him.

Weaknesses

Positioning and work rate. When he operated as an out and out striker, Paunovic proved a consistent, dangerous threat. But, too often, he slipped into midfield, relying on long ball service from near the midfield stripe. While he possesses the skill set to play in the midfield, too frequently long periods of time would elapse without so much as a touch on the ball. It is hard to tell whether his forays into midfield were by the design of the coaching staff or by personal preference, but either way, Paunovic is far more effective up top, leading the line, rather than acting as a deep lying distributor.

Outlook

Considering how highly Nowak values Paunovic, he will be around for 2012 in some capacity. With the arrival of Josue Martinez, there is another young striker who will demand minutes. And with a full offseason under his belt, Freddy Adu is expected to contribute as a starter. But Nowak will find playing time for Paunovic. The Union’s offseason has yet to bring a big, powerful attacking player into the fold, and until they do, or a player like Danny Mwanga proves he is up to it, it is likely that Paunovic will retain his crown as the Union’s aerial ball winner.

*Stat chart legend:
POS: Position; GP: Games Played; GS: Games Started; MINS: Minutes; PA: Passes Attempted; PC: Passes Completed; P%: Passing Accuracy Percentage; SHTS: Shots Faced; SV: Saves; GA: Goals Allowed; GAA: Goals Allowed Average; PKG/A: Penalty Goals/Attempted; W; Wins; L: Losses; T: Ties; ShO: Shutouts; W%: Win Percentage; SV%: Save Percentage; FC: Fouls Committed; FS: Fouls Suffered; YC: Yellow Cards; RC: Red Cards

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