No team is ever officially out of the Major League Soccer playoff race.
All you have to do is look at the Chicago Fire for the latest example of the parity that makes the league unique.
The Fire were stranded in the basement of the Eastern Conference for the majority of the regular season until they struck for a nice run of form in August and the start of September.
The lone loss during that span came at the hands of D.C. United on August 27 at RFK Stadium. The 6-2 defeat looks bad on paper, but if you dig deeper, Chicago put together a decent performance before Khaly Thiam was sent off.
Instead of falling back to the bottom of the East after the blowout loss, the Fire responded with a home win over the Union. The ability to bounce back impressed Paunovic, especially with some winnable matches ahead on the schedule.
"I think it was very important for us to come back, especially winning 3-0," Paunovic said. "It’s important after the loss. We also have to understand the game against D.C. was a completely different game from any game we played. We believe and we work hard so it doesn’t repeat. I think we just had a very bad day against D.C. and we move forward. I think we learned from that game. We all had the feeling that this can’t happen again, especially not until the end of the season."
The end of the regular season is rapidly approaching, and although they sit eight points out of the final playoff spot in the East after Saturday's 2-1 loss to Toronto, the Fire are hoping the belief instilled by Paunovic will help them challenge over the final seven matches.
Hard work and perseverance have been preached by Paunovic and his staff since the new manager took over during the offseason. The results may not have shown up at the start of the season, but the team has made positive steps recently.
Every player in the squad has followed that mentality whether it be in training or during matches.
“We believe that everyone is important and we’ve had that approach since we started working together in preseason," Paunovic said. "And I think that proves what we are doing at this point."
"Having the opportunity in training and every session and fighting for your spot in every game gives us the competitiveness on the field, especially for the games where we have to make some adjustments and changes so we can have competitive guys ready to play," Paunovic continued. "That’s part of the plan we have and part of the demands and the approach we’ve had since we’ve started working together."
The Fire enjoyed a boost in attack thanks to some midseason acquisitions. Dutch forward Michael de Leeuw, who last played with Groningen in the Eredivisie before joining Chicago, has three goals and two assists in his last three matches.
In addition to his recent scoring form, the 29-year-old forward has opened up the Fire attack alongside Luis Solignac and David Accam. Solignac was picked up in a trade with the Colorado Rapids right before the end of the summer transfer window. Accam is the top playmaker in the squad, but he hasn't had enough support around him in the final third.
“Everyone is important," Paunovic said. "But of course the guys who convert all these opportunities, in this case Michael, Luis, David and other guys, it’s important. For me, it’s a matter of being consistent in our work and approach, keeping our guys motivated and always pushing them forward to give their best performance."
Midfielder Arturo Alvarez has also brought a dynamic presence to the Fire attack. The 31-year-old has produced five goals and five assists for the ninth-place side in the Eastern Conference.
“I think Arturo is having one of the best seasons so far," Paunovic said. "We were able to manage together the load for the veteran players and the experience he brings to our team is very important. Everyone is very happy to see that he can even increase the number of goals he scores and assisting our players is something he always did very well.
"He has an abundance of talent. I think that’s something that was very important for us so far, but we will continue doing the same thing and asking the best from Arturo because we believe there is still a lot to give from him and we expect he will do that."
Chicago has the belief to win, and it's been evident over the last month that the plan set in place by Paunovic is finally working. Like all managers at a new club, the former Serbia U20 boss just needed to get the right players into the team to fit his system.
In order to make a late run at the sixth playoff position in the Eastern Conference, the Fire must earn revenge against D.C. on Friday night at Toyota Park. A win over the Black and Red, who are one point out of the playoffs, would inch the Fire closer to the current pack of three fighting for sixth that also includes Orlando City and the New England Revolution.
After Friday's match, the Fire head to the road for three consecutive matches against New York City FC, Seattle and Columbus. At least a point is mandatory from the first two games before they face the worst team in the Eastern Conference.
"There’s still a long way to go and we still have to keep that approach and there is a lot of games to play," Paunovic said. "I think we have a great opportunity in front of us, starting with the next game, of course seven games that will be seven finals for us."
Two games in a row, one on the road and one at home, against the Crew could spark a late run, or at least allow the Fire to play the role of spoiler against the Revolution on the penultimate day of the season. Chicago could be thrust into the same role a week later against a Toronto FC side searching for the top seed in the Eastern Conference and the Supporters' Shield.
The Fire may be too much of a long shot to make up eight points on Orlando with seven games left, but nothing is to be counted out when it comes to the wild and unpredictable MLS playoff race.
Even if Chicago fail to hit their postseason goal in 2016, they have built a solid foundation with Paunovic at the helm to make a charge from the start in 2017.
The combination of De Leeuw, Solignac and Accam should be able to create enough chances over 90 minutes for themselves or others to be able to finish, with players like Alvarez behind them in support if need be.
The Fire are also building a solid young core led by midfielder Matt Polster and defenders Jonathan Campbell and Brandon Vincent. Goalkeeper Sean Johnson, who is 27, has been a part of the defensive spine for quite some time, and he is expected to help usher the young defenders into the squad as they adjust to the complexities of the league.
Paunovic and general manager Nelson Rodriguez will also be able to add some new parts during the offseason to strengthen a roster that is just a few players away from contending.
If their recent run has taught us anything, it's that the plan that Paunovic and Rodriguez instilled is already working, and it will reap more success in time.
Joe Tansey covers MLS for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @JTansey90.