Chicago Fire FC are grinding to the end of a disappointing 2021 MLS campaign, one where no Audi MLS Cup Playoffs soccer awaits for the fourth straight year.
But the future is almost certain to be brighter if Luka Stojanovic builds on his achievements.
The Serbian midfielder hammered home a phenomenal volley during second-half stoppage time Wednesday night to give the Fire a 4-3 victory at FC Cincinnati and the 27-year-old a signature moment. His 93rd-minute golazo came just seven minutes after he subbed into the Eastern Conference clash at TQL Stadium.
With a team-leading eight goals in his first full season following an MCL tear in 2020, perhaps Stojanovic also made the case that the next full-time Fire manager should come equipped with a system to use his talents even more.
"I think this is the best season of my career," Stojanovic said after scoring Wednesday. "Because [of] the minutes I play and the impact I give to the team, I think this is the best season so far for me because when I have better statistics in the last clubs, I have also much more minutes."
Despite his efficiency in 2021 – his 0.54 non-penalty goals per 90 minutes are tied for ninth in MLS – he has come off the bench in nearly half of his 25 appearances.
The reason for that? Stojanovic's most natural role is as an attacking midfielder, but can be viewed by some coaches as not offering enough as a distributor or defender in that position. Stojanovic has two assists in 2021.
"I think, sometimes, depending on the system that we switched earlier on makes it a little more difficult when we played with 3-5-2," interim manager Frank Klopas said of Stojanovic's playing time. "You need three midfielders, really, that cover a lot of ground.
"I think he's best, at least in my opinion, when you have two players behind him and he plays almost as a No. 10 because he has quality."
Whether Chicago's next manager plays a system that could use Stojanovic in such a role is a question for sporting director Georg Heitz.
Stojanovic appears open to the idea.
"I will not look back anymore," he said. "I am going to finish with that now and just look forward. We have next home game, and I'm so happy that we are going to play in front of, I hope, a lot of our fans in the last game.
"They have good reason to come now and I invite them to come and to help the team in these three games to finish and we see what's going to be after that."