Djordje Mihailovic did some growing in his winter of change.
Some was normal evolution. After most seasons he reflects on the beginning of the year to take stock of changes personally and professionally and is often taken aback, but this offseason was much different. He exited the 2020 campaign following his finest season, registering more goal contributions than any other year despite the truncated schedule, while starting a larger percentage of games than years past. In other words: Once a promising Chicago Fire homegrown prospect, Mihailovic took his biggest step towards realizing that potential and getting greater consistency.
Now, following a blockbuster winter trade from his boyhood Fire to CF Montréal, he's expected to be the creator-in-chief for Wilfried Nancy's side, not just a promising young talent. It's a different space.
“What I feel in Montréal is a sense of importance that I haven’t felt a team needed from me in a while — or ever," Mihailovic told MLSsoccer.com. "That kind of responsibility is only going to help me grow as a player. It’s positive pressure.”
The 22-year-old Mihailovic made 76 MLS appearances with Chicago following his 2017 debut. It would have been a bit more, too, if not for a torn ACL that cost him most of the 2018 campaign. Last year was his best as a pro, in which he had two goals and six assists in just under 1,200 minutes, earning a call-up to the US national team in December, then viewed as one of the most important pieces for the US U-23s failed attempt to qualify for the Olympics, but would be representing a new club team while on national duty.
Mihailovic would have been entering the final year of his contract with Chicago this year, fully understanding a change of scenery was likely.
“I didn’t want to put Chicago in a place where it would have been if I stayed, played out my contract and left on a free transfer," Mihailovic said. "Playing with Chicago for four years in the academy, then four in the first team, I didn’t want to leave on that kind of note. It was kind of what was best for the club."
Mihailovic wasn't short of suitors and had some say in which direction those talks went. When he was with the US men's national team in December, there were plenty of calls and discussions with the club and his agent. Ultimately, Montréal's desire to acquire him won out.
“My first thought and opportunity would have been re-signing in Chicago, if the circumstances were right, if they had the same belief that Montréal showed. ... It was really frustrating," Mihailovic admitted. "I set out a goal of mine when I started my career, I wanted to be an important player for that club. The ups and downs over the four years, twists and turns, I had really good moments, but mentally outside the game it took a toll on me. I was always one of the earliest to the facility and the last to leave, but towards the end, I wanted to leave as soon as training was over. I wasn’t happy at all.
"Rapha Wicky wanted me back, in end-of-the-year meetings he was under the impression I was going to come back, but I met with the directors and we agreed it was best for me and the club (to move on)," he continued. "I have nothing against the club, they’ve given me everything. It’s just one of those things, nobody is bigger than the club. The club will have to do what’s best for themselves, I know that.”
He is third in MLS in high-speed-distance run per game while his team in in possession, 1.5x his rate last season, per Second Spectrum. He is involved in more of his team's shots than last year and is toward the top of Montréal in expected assists, dribbles, chances created, passes ending in the final third and more this season.
“I’m happy about what Djordje has done so far," Nancy said. "Now that he knows his teammates better, and they know him better and his qualities. What I like about him is he’s able to read the play. He has the freedom to understand when to slow it down or speed up the tempo. This is good. We need to focus a little bit more now on that, but it’s getting better.”
“Wilfried has been amazing, the staff have been amazing," Mihailovic added. "The details on tactics, formations and principles of play—the principles never change. ... Attacking, it’s been great. In the past systems I’ve played, it’s been more strict. There’s more freedom for me (now), it’s great. I want to get more touches on the ball, I want to get to know my teammates better and their preferences. The picture people see of us is pretty clear, fluid movement from everyone, not just myself.”
The honeymoon continues for Mihailovic, who could be on his way to his most productive season as pro. Change, along with personal growth, has suited Mihailovic well.
“So many things changed this offseason," Mihailovic said. "Taking this opportunity and role I have, prepared me for things I wasn’t before. It’s helped me. I can’t stop now. We have a long way to go, a lot more improvements to happen."