Sometimes, a player will be stuck in a less than ideal situation at the club level. A reversal of fortune generally requires a change of scenery in the form of a loan or transfer. Since moving to CF Montréal, Djordje Mihailovic (sometimes stylized as Đorđe Mihailović) is becoming a volume attacker, thriving as the focal point in the final third and on pace to set the club record for assists in a single season. The 22-year-old midfielder is rocketing upward, with future call-ups likely to follow.
Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Mihailovic, the son of a former North American Soccer League professional, grew up in Chicago and played for his father’s youth organization, the Chicago Blast. He joined the Chicago Fire academy in 2013, scoring at a productive rate of 41 goals in 66 matches and winning the 2015 USSDA National Championship. Despite having committed to the University of North Carolina, the club signed him to a Homegrown Player contract in 2017.
“We consider Djordje to be a bright talent,” said then-general manager Nelson Rodríguez. “His signing is a credit to the entire U.S. development system. His formation was aided by past and present Academy staff, U.S. Soccer and Brad Friedel, as well as our current first team staff. We will continue to work in helping Djordje realize his full potential.”
In his first season, Mihailovic made 19 total appearances, mostly as a substitute. He was selected to the MLS Homegrown Game and scored his first career goal in a 4-1 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes. By the end of the year, the club was using him – the youngest member of the squad by two years – as a starter. Unfortunately, the teenager suffered an ACL rupture in the playoffs, but then-manager Veljko Paunović praised him for “handling the situation with maturity.”
The injury required almost nine months of rehabilitation, preventing his return to the match day lineup until August of 2018. Mihailovic picked up where he left off, playing in every match for the rest of the season, registering one goal and three assists. A few months later, the national team called him into January camp, a fitting and deserved reward after such a trying period.
“It was a great experience,” said Mihailovic. “A lot of things that I learned from Gregg [Berhalter] and his staff and the other players like Michael Bradley and Wil Trapp. I think it was a great learning opportunity for me as well as an opportunity to showcase what I’m capable of on the field. I think I did a great job of doing that. Of course I have to keep working and improve myself to get called in.”
He began the next season as a full-time starter, playing in 28 matches, before playing time dwindled. Mihailovic scored three goals and added two assists, but Chicago narrowly missed out on the playoffs. German club FC Nürnberg was reportedly interested in a transfer, bringing him in for a training period.
In 2020, Mihailovic experienced a big step forward, contributing two goals and seven assists in 20 appearances during the coronavirus-shortened schedule. However, there was a minor “internal matter” at the MLS is Back Tournament that perhaps foreshadowed an eventual departure. The midfielder was held out of a crucial fixture against the Vancouver Whitecaps, which saw the Fire lose 2-0 and be eliminated from the competition. Manager Raphaël Wicky claimed the two “turned the page” after his “technical [and] tactical decision.”
At the end of the season, following another absence from the postseason, Chicago sent Mihailovic to CF Montréal for a hefty domestic sum and 10% sell-on clause. The club stated that the player was “ready for a new challenge.” He signed a three-year contract with the Canadian outfit, which includes a significant increase in guaranteed salary from $114,600 to over $700,000.
The move was apparently not without contention. Months later, Mihailovic claimed that during end-of-year meetings the front office said there was no place for him and to look for a new club. Fire sporting director Georg Heitz denied this, stating that the player was “telling fairy tales.” Patrick McCraney of Hot Time in Old Town reported that the wantaway midfielder “began acting out in training” and “was forced to apologize in front of the entire team.”
Despite a coaching change in March, the transfer has provided a spectacular change to his career, giving “a sense of importance… and responsibility” that is helping him “grow as a player.” No longer perceiving his efforts as “disposable,” Mihailovic is currently second in Major League Soccer with 11 assists, coupled with four goals. He is shouldering the attacking burden for Montréal, embracing the tactical freedom and dominating statistical categories such as key passes. Europe has yet to come calling again, but the club will not stand in the way of the potential record holder’s move.
At the international level, Mihailovic – whose father was born in the area of Yugoslavia that is now Serbia and mother is from Macedonia – is a long-term member of the U.S. program, beginning with a spell at the former U-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Florida. His senior debut came in 2019, closing out January camp with a goal in the 3-0 victory over Panama. He has earned five caps under Gregg Berhalter, playing twice at the Gold Cup and most recently in last December’s 6-0 friendly win against El Salvador.
The midfielder was a member of the U-23 side that failed to reach the Tokyo Games. Mihailovic featured in all four matches at the 2020 CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship, contributing one goal and two assists in the 4-0 group stage victory over the Dominican Republic. In the past, Berhalter praised him as “a fantastic talent… with real high potential,” who is “as good as he sets his mind to” be.
Mihailovic is a central midfielder, disliking being deployed as a winger. “I was always in the middle my entire life,” he said, potentially indicating a distaste for Chicago’s tactics. “Even after moving wider, I didn’t switch my style of play in any way. I continued to play like an attacking midfielder, only perhaps 20 yards to the left instead… I’m never going to beat three men with pace. I’m going to be like a playmaker on the outside, but it’s one of those things where I feel more comfortable playing inside.”
In Montreal, Mihailovic is given a lot of freedom on the ball, often starting the attack at the center circle and dribbling forward. He is capable of short-range possession and longer passes, while also putting in decent work to press the opponent and block shots. His scoring contribution can be a bit limited to clean-up duty around the box, as his game is focused more on setting up teammates. More importantly the midfielder is embracing the pressures of leadership, taking an active role for an improving Montréal side that has struggled for the past five years.
As the USMNT could perhaps use a little more creativity in the attack, Mihailovic is emerging at an opportune moment. His potential and ability are a known entity, but both may have been stifled with the Fire and by a serious ACL rupture. Now at Montréal, his star is once again on the rise, although perhaps situated slightly further away from the spotlight, mainly discussed in French-language media. If his production continues at a similar rate, a call-up during World Cup qualifying would not come as a surprise.