With the 18 months Mihailovic has had since arriving in Montréal ahead of the 2021 season, there was no shortage of options for where. Numerous clubs were interested in the attacking midfielder, who has 11 goals and 20 assists in his 54 MLS appearances with Montréal.
In the end, it was Dutch club AZ Alkmaar that was right for all parties, sealing a deal in which Mihailovic will join in the winter.
“My teammates are happy for me, but I mean for a few months it was a lot of jokes at me about where I was going to go,” Mihailvoic told media with a smile on a press conference Thursday.
All in the timing
The when was a hugely important factor in this deal. Montréal had no interest in losing their best player down the stretch run of the season, currently sitting second in the Eastern Conference with eight games left ahead of the Audi 2022 MLS Cup Playoffs.
“AZ wanted him as soon as possible,” sporting director Olivier Renard said. “For me, it wasn’t an option.”
Montréal received a club-record deal, reportedly worth around $6 million, including add-ons and a sell-on clause. Mihailovic had long stated his desire to make a move to Europe when the timing was right, something that was discussed with the club when he was acquired in a trade from Chicago Fire FC in 2021.
“We’re very proud,” Renard said. “He was very open, and it was difficult to leave Montréal, but he wanted to go to Europe. Everybody knows that. I would be the last to push him out, but I’m happy he could reach what he wanted in his career.”
Landing in the Dutch league should be a strong fit for Mihailovic and his best qualities. He is often among the league leaders in ground covered and the attacking nature of the league will fit with his best qualities.
It’s also a league in which a couple US men’s national team legends enjoyed their best-ever scoring seasons: Michael Bradley (15 goals from the midfield with Heerenveen in 2007-08) as well as Jozy Altidore (23 goals in 2012-13 with AZ). Altidore and Mihailovic spoke ahead of his transfer to AZ.
“AZ have a history of developing young players, helping them reach levels they probably couldn’t imagine reaching,” Mihailovic said. “I spoke with the sporting director and the coach, they have a similar philosophy to here. When I got there, I felt very comfortable. Speaking with the coach about where I fit in with the group, their plan – everything feels right.”
That combination of fit for the player, financial benefit to the club and the ability to delay the move until the winter rather than right now made the move perfect.
“We’re going to sit down at the table with the owner to see how to reinvest the money in the team, the infrastructure or the staff because it also costs money,” Renard said, translated from French.
A strong connection
Anytime Mihailovic has been asked about his transition to Montréal over the last year or so, he’s been introspective and thoughtful about his response.
After spending the first four years of his career with his local Chicago team, signing a homegrown contract and going on to make 73 appearances, Mihailovic has pointed to the maturing he needed to do. He found a new home in Montréal, with new responsibilities that helped him grow on and off the field.
Montréal head coach Wilfried Nancy was a big part of his evolution in both arenas.
“From a human side, it was a change last year,” Mihailovic said. “There was some growing I needed to do in terms of my personality. … Wilfried allowed me to show who I am in the best possible way. When you have someone like him that fully understands you as a human, that just translates to getting the best out of you as a player.”
Nancy said he was really proud of Mihailovic for earning this move.
“It's a real relationship,” Nancy said in French. “Sometimes being brutally honest and other times with a lot of empathy."
Mihailovic and Nancy have more time to further their relationship and perhaps make some new memories. Montréal have only one postseason appearance since 2016 – in 2020 when a temporarily expanded playoff field allowed them in, before losing in the play-in round.
The last time Montréal enjoyed postseason success was in 2016, a team led by Nacho Piatti, in which the Canadian club made it to the Eastern Conference Final.
One step at a time for this year.
“I’ve played one playoff game in my career and I lost 4-0,” Mihailovic said. “So my first goal is to win a playoff game, then win MLS Cup.”