When Veljko Paunovic was hired as the Chicago Fire’s head coach in November 2015, one of the first things he did was search for a place to live.
The Serbian native, who coached his national team to the FIFA Under-20 World Cup championship in 2015, wound up buying a house in Naperville, where he resides with his wife and four children.
“It’s actually exactly what we were looking for,” Paunovic says. “It is a beautiful city.
“The downtown is beautiful and so is the house. I think the people are very nice. It is very similar to the town that my family and I lived in in Madrid.”
Paunovic, a worldly man who speaks five languages, lived in several countries, including Spain, Germany and Russia, during a 16-year playing career that ended in 2011. He quickly learned that Naperville is a soccer hotbed in addition to being a desirable place to live.
“It’s very family-oriented,” Paunovic says. “We have very nice facilities and the schools are great. We got information from the people who know here in the club that [Naperville is] a nice neighborhood.”
One of those people was defender Patrick Doody, who grew up not far from where Paunovic resides.
“I’m always vocal about how great Naperville is,” says Doody, who starred at Neuqua Valley High School from 2008–2011. “I explained to him about some of the local restaurants. I’m hoping he’s happy living in Naperville because it’s such a great place to live and raise a family in.”
Many of those families are huge soccer fans, as Paunovic found out to his delight.
“My [next-door] neighbor was actually a season ticket holder, so he came right away when he saw me,” Paunovic says. “I was in the backyard juggling the ball with my kids and he was like, ‘I can’t believe it when I saw you, this is not happening.’
“So [the neighbors] are excited. I have my daily routine on the day of the game when we play at home, so I visit the same places. If we win, I go [there again]. If we don’t win, I’m not coming back. It’s great that the people are recognizing me and sharing the passion for soccer and for our team.”
Indeed, after finishing in last place the past two seasons, the Fire enjoyed a terrific 2017 regular season, rising to the top of the standings at one point and making their first playoff bid since 2009. Paunovic’s coaching was one reason, as was the addition of star players like German World Cup veteran Bastian Schweinsteiger and US national team stalwart Dax McCarty.
But local talent also played a role. Doody moved into the starting lineup and on August 5 became the first homegrown player in club history to record three assists in one game. Four other players hail from the Chicago area, including 18-year-old Lemont resident Djordje Mihailovic and Downers Grove’s Collin Fernandez.
Doody is one of many pro players to come out of Naperville in the past decade. His former Neuqua teammate Bryan Ciesiulka played for St. Louis in the United Soccer League. Another Neuqua alum, Bryan Gaul, plays professionally in Germany.
Three Naperville natives currently play in the National Women’s Soccer League. Doody’s former Neuqua classmate, Megan Oyster, plays for the Boston Breakers, while Casey Short and Vanessa DiBernardo are on the Chicago Red Stars.
“We have all the ingredients in Naperville,” Paunovic says. “We have people, we have the infrastructure. The result is players like Patrick Doody becoming pros.”
Soccer is the world’s most popular sport, yet it does not yet enjoy the fanatical following here that it does in foreign countries. But Paunovic is optimistic by what he sees in Naperville and the surrounding areas.
“Every day when I drive to the stadium here I see so many soccer fields,” Paunovic says. “It’s something that I used to see in Europe a lot, but seeing that here, especially in Naperville, it makes me feel at home. It makes me also think that there is a huge passion for this sport, which is amazing to see.
“I think the new generation is going to convert that into the passion which is necessary for the sport in this country, and I think Naperville is actually a very good example of what’s going on, not only in Naperville or Chicago, but everywhere else in the United States.”
Local fans share Paunovic’s enthusiasm. The Fire, which played its home games at North Central College in 2002, has a large following in Naperville.
Jim Konrad and Steve Goletz, who coached the boys and girls soccer teams at Naperville North High School, have season tickets in the front row behind the Fire bench at Toyota Park.
“[The Fire’s success] has been a positive thing because the suburbs are so soccer crazy,” Konrad says. “Guys [who] are diehard baseball and football fans now are [noticing] the Fire doing [well]. It’s pulling the high school kids in who will start asking us about Fire players, whereas the last three years, Goletz and I had no one to talk to.”
Goletz has seen more familiar faces from Naperville than usual at Toyota Park this year. “We were always those guys [who] follow the Fire regardless because we love Chicago sports and soccer,” Goletz says. “Now that they’re good, the more casual fan is coming. I use my brother-in-law as an example. He grew up playing park district soccer and then never played again. Once I married my wife, I tried to get him back into soccer. I take him to [some] Fire games, but now he’s looking to buy season tickets because now his daughter plays soccer.”
As a Fire player from Naperville, Doody has seen both sides of it, having grown up attending playoff games at Toyota Park. He says the view is great either way.
“Ever since my rookie year , I feel the connection with Naperville has been big,” says Doody, who now lives in Chicago. “It’s pretty neat being from Naperville. I can go back whenever I want.”
Nothing but Neuqua Net
Patrick Doody signed with the Fire in December 2014, but that wasn’t the first time he played at Toyota Park. Doody was a junior at Neuqua Valley High School when he scored the game-winning goal against Lyons in the championship game of the 2009 Pepsi Showdown.
Tony Kees, who coached Doody at Neuqua Valley and with the Chicago Fire Academy team, called it “a goal for the ages” and revels in Doody’s success.“It’s so wonderful to look back on,” says Kees, who now coaches for Sockers FC. “He’s got a winning pedigree. Even before [the Fire’s] resurgence it was a bit surreal seeing him play on the Toyota Park pitch. Every time I see him out there I’m like, ‘Wow, now he’s getting paid to do it.’”