Djordje Montreal

After 33 MLS regular-season games, it all comes down to one for several clubs on Decision Day. CF Montréal is one of those teams.

The Canadian side has been among the league's pleasant surprises in 2021, firmly in the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs race all year long and earning the opportunity to get over the line on Sunday. Their task is straightforward at home to Orlando City SC (3:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+): Win and you're in. Lose or draw and you're out.

On Wednesday, Montreal got the victory they needed against Houston Dynamo FC to keep their hopes firmly alive on Decision Day. There was a familiar name at the heart of the win, with midfielder Djordje Mihailovic setting up his team's second goal to register his 16th assist of the season. And the 23-year-old appears to be relishing the pressure as the season comes down to the wire.

“This game Sunday is a final," Mihailovic told "It’s do or die.”

"How can I silence the critics"

Montréal's current position is not something many around the league envisioned for this club in the winter. The year began with an abrupt coaching change right before preseason started, with the legendary Thierry Henry departing and Wilfried Nancy taking over. The team then began 2021 in Florida over COVID-19 pandemic travel limitations, waiting to return home to Stade Saputo in the summer and play in front of fans for the first time in a year and a half. Yet all of that has led them to the brink of the playoffs.

“I know I joked around at the beginning of the year when all the MLS experts put us dead last and I was messing around a little bit saying ‘put your money where your mouth is.’ OK, maybe it’s 80% a joke but 20% the truth. I'mma prove you guys wrong," Mihailovic said.

This isn't a straw-man argument, nor is he going through mental gymnastics contorting the "nobody believes in us!" rallying cry which is en vogue in many locker rooms across professional sports. There are receipts – the internet is forever, never forget that – and it wouldn't be shocking if Mihailovic has a few off the top of his head he could recall. This writer was among an MLS panel of "experts" predicting the season. Eleven of us put down our season predictions. Eight of us – myself included – put them dead last in the East. The other three said second-last in the East.

Prove us wrong he did.

That defiant mentality has fueled Mihailovic's budding career, from breaking through as an academy graduate with Chicago Fire FC and the US national team pool, to blossoming for a breakout year as a bonafide star for Montréal.

In 2021 Mihailovic has been one of the very best attackers in MLS, full stop. Look at where he ranks across the league in various key categories:

Djordje Mihailovic's career year
League rank
Primary assists
Expected assists
Chances created
Total distance covered

Along the way, he hasn't forgotten the doubters.

“Over the course of my career so far, I’ve been criticized," Mihailovic said. "When I first started, I wasn’t big enough. Or then I didn’t create enough. Then it was that I wasn’t consistent enough. I’ve always been criticized, I’ve always had it in the back of my mind: How can I silence the critics? How can I play, perform and improve? This year I’ve put it all together."

Even with praise rolling in, he wants more.

“Everybody is saying it’s a career year," Mihailovic said, "but actually, it’s just the starting point.”

National team frustrations

Mihailovic has joined the US men's national team before, but not for a while. He has six caps with the senior national team, including being part of the 2019 Gold Cup, but hasn't been called in since December 2020. He hasn't been with a non-winter camp with the senior team since that Gold Cup. He was a leader of the U-23 national team that failed to qualify for the Olympics in March, his last involvement with the national team at any level.

While for many fans his performances this season have been enough to put him back on the radar, Mihailovic hasn't heard anything from USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter and his staff. Berhalter named a 25-man roster for November's World Cup qualifiers on Thursday but Mihailovic's name was nowhere to be found.

Djordje Mihailovic - US national team - January 27, 2019

“No, I haven’t heard anything," Mihailovic said. "I think I’m rightfully allowed to be a little frustrated, but I can only control what I can control.”

The USMNT announced a camp and friendly against Bosnia and Herzegovina for December that is likely to almost exclusively feature MLS-based players. Mihailovic would be among the players expected to get a call.

“It bothers me a little bit," he admitted about not returning to the national team yet. "I’ve played well, but the national team staff knows what they want. They see every game, I know that for a fact, so if I keep playing this well I know my time will come again.”

Mihailovic has another chance on Sunday, but he won't be focusing on any of that. Like he said, it's do or die. Win and get in against Orlando on Decision Day.

“These are the games that everybody wants to play in, a do or die game," Mihailovic said. "The pressure we all live for, this is why we play professional sports. We put ourselves in this situation with our work all year long, we’re rewarded with this opportunity. At the end of the game if I can walk away with giving everything I have, if I walk away having no energy, I won’t have any regrets.”