Chicago Fire salute Mihailovic's decisive impact on return from ACL injury

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – One goal. One assist. One Man-of-the-Match performance in a rare 3-1 victory over playoff-chasing opponents.

Second-year HomegrownDjordje Mihailovic on Saturday gave the Chicago Fire a timely reminder of what they have been missing with a display of confidence and maturity that belied his age.

It’s perhaps a little poetic that the 19-year-old delivered it on the night his picture adorned the centerfold in the matchday program at Toyota Park. The Lemont, Ill. native had been sidelined for almost a year by a torn ACL suffered during last year's Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, but he is quickly recapturing the form that earmarked him as a potential star in his maiden season.

Fire goalkeeper Stefan Cleveland, himself a second-year professional, might have earned MVP honors on another night after a string of vital saves denied a misfiring LAFC, but he was quick to pay tribute to Mihailovic and the immediate impact he has made in six appearances since his return from injury.

"It's huge, especially with how young he is, to get his momentum, his confidence back up,” Cleveland said. “An injury can hurt a career but he hasn't let it affect him, it's actually made him much stronger, to get him out there playing confident. It helps the team a lot. He can definitely carry us in a positive manner for the rest of the season.”

Adding positivity and potency in the offensive third is key to Mihailovic‘s game, but he does not shirk the grittier, more defensive side of the game that head coach Veljko Paunovic has demanded from him.

"He's expecting me to be a team player, to play my hardest, work hard defensively before anything,” Mihailovic said of Paunovic. “I think that's what happened today. Interceptions led to goals.”

Said Paunovic: “He's growing. He's growing and I'm very happy for him. The other day Michael [de Leeuw] scored a goal and we spoke about him, so I think that's a great reward for him today, for Djordje. Scoring a goal, having a great performance. He's growing, he still needs to learn and we will always encourage him.”

A few more performances like this one could propel Mihailovic into the wider, perhaps national, consciousness. But both coach and player have identified the need to keep him grounded and focused on continuing his development.

“We will always push him to go forward, but we want him also to be with his feet on the ground,” Paunovic added. “He's young and it happens that the people start to think that after one game they have the world. Which they will have, but just be respectful for everyone. For the club, for his teammates, and I think he's doing that great. And we just have to remind ourselves who we are and what we have to do in order to become the best we can be.

“In the case of Djordje, I think he's doing very good in understanding that. He knows what is his role on and off the field, in the locker room, and he knows how to deal and respect the older players in the locker room and also more veteran players who have more experience. It's very important that he learns from them.”

As Chicago’s confidence in Mihailovic grows, so does his in turn.

“It's important, every day of training, every game, I feel more confident with my knee and with playing again,” Mihailovic said. “I'm especially confident with the team and them using me as a player that they need. I think each game you can see that improvement.”