The Call Up

How Gregg Berhalter's advice helped turn Djordje Mihailovic into an MVP candidate

Djordje Mihailovic prefers assists to goals. He’s made no secret of that. The CF Montréal midfielder gets more joy from that final pass that leads to a teammate’s goal, recording 16 assists last season, just two behind last year's Landon Donovan MVP winner Carles Gil's 18.

“I say it all the time, I prefer assisting versus scoring. I don’t know, I just prefer it,” Mihailovic said to co-hosts Jillian Sakovits and Susannah Collins on The Call Up. “Last year, 16 assists, it really felt good and I was second behind [Carles] Gil. I wanted to be first, but I love being the guy that makes the final pass, creating the chance.”

But when US men's national team manager Gregg Berhalter told Mihailovic at January camp that he’d like to see more goals out of him, those words resonated with the former Chicago Fire FC homegrown in the simplest of ways, as he wants to be on that plane to Qatar to compete in the 2022 FIFA World Cup this November.

“The World Cup is something that motivates me,” Mihailovic said. “When that’s the kind of tip the coach of the national team is telling me then I really have to do my best to achieve that.”

So Mihailovic went into analytical mode this offseason.

“In terms of scoring, I really took a long look at my shooting situation from last year,” he said. “I scored four goals out of maybe 60 shots and 15, 16 were on targets out of 60 shots. I just thought this can’t be, this is not how you’re going to be a goalscorer in any league. That was the main thing I tried to focus on.”

The difference has been clear this season. Mihailovic has already surpassed last year’s goal total – he has five goals on 18 shots, 11 on target, and combined with four assists, he’s in the early conversation for MVP.

“The first thing is get the ball on goal. You’re always going to give yourself a chance and then second is being way more composed in that situation,” Mihailovic said. “When I started playing, 2017, 2018, I was more of a midfielder, No. 8, so I didn’t really find myself around the box quite often. Now that I’m putting myself in these situations time and time again, I feel way more comfortable in and around the box and lucky enough this year I’m being way more clinical and helping the team win.”

Mihailovic credits the movement he makes with how much soccer he consumes, both as a fan – although French language classes at the same time as the UEFA Champions League in recent weeks have been a hindrance – and as a cerebral player.

And while he has taken Berhalter’s words to heart, Mihailovic said they’re not in his head on game day.

“I don’t go into every game like ‘I've got to score, I’ve got to score.’ I like to play free, I like things to come naturally to me,” the 23-year-old said. “But it’s more of being that when that situation comes, alright, I’ve got to put the ball in the goal because you don’t know what’s going to happen at the end of the year.”

For more from Mihailovic's interview, check the latest edition of The Call Up here.