Mihailovic's long road back from ACL injury set up sparkling USMNT debut

SAN JOSE, Calif. – As he lay on the pitch at Toyota Park, taking stock of his body following an awkward slide tackle gone awry during the opening round of the 2017 MLS Cup Playoffs, the thing that most concerned Chicago Fire midfielder Djordje Mihailovic wasn’t his right knee.

“My hamstring was in a lot of pain, so I thought I just pulled a hamstring,” Mihailovic told MLSsoccer.com on Thursday. “The most I’ve ever been out was a month, so I thought I’ll be back on the field by the time preseason starts. But the next day I was at the doctor’s office. He told me what happened.”

What happened was far worse than a simple hamstring strain. The Fire’s Homegrown phenom had ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament. The eventual 4-0 loss to the New York Red Bulls that bounced Chicago from the 2017 postseason would be Mihailovic’s last MLS action for nearly 10 months.

And yet, the time off did nothing to slow Mihailovic’s rise. He returned on Aug. 18, dishing out four assists and a spectacular volleyed goal in Chicago’s final nine matches of the season.

In December, Mihailovic received his first invite to a senior-level US national team camp. Mihailovic responded by earning a starting spot against Panama last weekend – and delivering the first goal of the Gregg Berhalter era in his Stars-and-Stripes debut.

“It’s definitely,” said Mihailovic, “a storybook type of thing.”

The fairy tale was witnessed by Mihailovic’s family, including his father, Aleks, an All-American at Jacksonville University whose own pro career was cut short by injury.

“It was a special moment because of what Djordje went through, the way he fought through it,” Aleks told MLSsoccer.com by phone Thursday. “He hasn’t skipped a beat.”

Djordje Mihailovic can keep that beat going Saturday as the US host Costa Rica at Avaya Stadium (3:30 pm ET | FOX), site of his first MLS goal. It would be another bit of repayment for the seemingly endless hours he put into his rehab efforts. His return came too late to keep the Fire from missing the playoffs for the fifth time in six seasons, but his performances were enough to convince Berhalter and Co. of his recovery.

“I knew if I put in the work, put in the eight hours [a day] in the treatment room, that there’d be some sort of prize at the end of the day,” Mihailovic said. “As soon as I stepped onto the field for the Fire, I didn’t think about the national team, I thought about helping Chicago out of the situation we had last year. . . . The short-term goals that you make help the long-term goals that you want to reach.”

Mihailovic said he’s picked up things such as pre-training activation of muscles and calls himself “more professional” both on and off the field than before the injury.

“The things I learned along that road of recovery, the mental strength that I had to build, the physical strength that I had to rebuild and how I see the game has definitely improved,” Mihailovic said. “And I definitely use all that right now.”

To Aleks, the toughest part of the process was keeping his son from wanting to push too hard and come back too soon.

“He went at the training extremely hard in rehab,” Aleks Mihailovic said. “He followed every detail and instruction.”

Taking the 10-month layoff, rather than coming back after only seven or eight months, provides a better chance of avoiding further injury later in Djordje’s career – and it gave the youngster a chance to steep himself in the game, mentally.

“Every opportunity I got, I watched the game,” Djordje Mihailovic said. “I was always at trainings, even though I wasn’t able to play. I was always on the sideline, watching. I took more of a coach’s role, seeing how the players move. I think that sort of stuff has definitely caught my eye and translated to when I got back on the field. It helped me a lot.”

That vision helped Mihailovic make a late-breaking run into the Panamanian box, arriving at the perfect moment to sting a first-touch shot – which benefitted from a slight deflection – past goalkeeper Eddie Roberts. Only one thing remained: a post-game get-together with Aleks, who served as Djordje’s youth coach for a decade.

“I gave him my jersey right after the game,” Djordje Mihailovic said. “He was in tears. It was a special moment for all of us.”