In sports, fans can be forgetful of just how good a certain player truly is. It happens all the time, as new storylines come out on a day to day basis. With everything going on at once, it is easy for certain players to slip through the cracks, and out of the memory of supporters. It seemed like there would be a chance that would happen to Djordje Mihailovic, but he’s made sure to remind everyone just how special of a player he truly is.
To be fair to Fire fans, there’s been a lot going on this season. The club has had a number of problems on and off the pitch that have demanded everyone’s attention. With all that going on, Mihailovic was in the background, recovering from a torn ACL suffered in the playoff loss to the New York Red Bulls. In that time, other players began to show promise in the now vacated central midfielder spot, with both Mo Adams and Brandt Bronico impressing at various points in the year. There were some who began to question whether Mihailovic should even return to the starting XI upon his return. However, those questions have since been answered with some superb performances in recent weeks.
Everyone understands he is one for the future, but it’s insane when you remember just how young he is. Born only a few weeks after the Fire won MLS Cup in 1998, Mihailovic has yet to even turn 20. (For perspective, I was born eight days after he was, and I’m here writing this article as a sophomore in college.) The key thing is, he is more of a youngster in a European soccer sense, not an American one.
In MLS, players usually start out at an older age than their European counterparts. Having to go through several years of college means players are over the age of 22 when they get to make their debut. For example, every member of the 2018 rookie class of the Fire, (Mo Adams, Grant Lillard, Elliot Collier, and Diego Campos) will be 23 come the end of the season.
It’s different oversees, with players coming through youth academies, where they are eligible to play whenever their team feels they are good enough. Look at other Americans abroad, like Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie, who broke into their respective first teams at the age of 18. This head start will give Mihailovic much more time to learn, and the experience will help him reach a high level at a much younger age.
He’s also begun to develop quite the resume early on in his career. Mihailovic is usually a starter for the Fire, at a position where the club has a surprising amount of depth compared to other areas of the field. He’s also made his mark on the international level, scoring for the United States U-19 team in two separate European invitational tournaments. The American was also in the MLS spotlight last season, as he captained the Homegrown team during the All-Star break, and even grabbed a goal in front of a hometown crowd at Toyota Park.
His youth has made his recovery from injury that much more amazing. Countless of promising careers have been cut short due to injuries suffered just when they got going. The problems are both physical and mental. Younger players are still growing into their body, and any setback can stunt proper development. The mental aspects are even harder to deal with, as these players are most likely dealing with an extended period out of the team for the first time. They are scared upon return, mortified by the idea of reaggravating whatever injury had kept them out of action.
Instead of putting his head down and cursing his luck, however, Mihailovic kept a positive attitude throughout his recovery. During the preseason, the Fire posted several clips on social media filmed by Djordje, who was laughing along and messing with teammates. Then there were the club ran FIFA tournaments at the Heineken Pub 97, where he just seemed like one of the dudes. This bright demeanor even comes off after Fire games, where he’s always willing to take photos and sign autographs with fans, no matter the result of the contest.
Mihailovic hasn’t shown that timidness that most players do after recovering from a long injury, and actually looks better than ever, with the stats backing up that claim. He’s only played half the amount of minutes as last season, but has already matched his goal scoring tally, and even has one more assist than all of last year. His man of the match performance against LAFC on Saturday was probably the best game of his career. The goal he scored should be named MLS goal of the week, as he caught a looping cross perfectly on the volley. His assist on the third goal was superb as well, as he drove the ball up the field before expertly laying off to the top of the box, where Katai was able comfortably to place it past the keeper.
Simply put, Mihailovic is on course to be European levels of good. The Fire haven’t seen someone that the club developed head across the Atlantic since Chris Rolfe went to Denmark in 2009, but he seems to be next in line. He just has that “it” factor that only a few players have. Mihailovic has a knack for the game, knowing when to slow the pace down, and when to really push the tempo. He’s incredibly balanced, capable of making plays on either side of the field. Young American players have the stigma of playing too safe, but Mihailovic is willing to take risks when the time is right. The goal against LAFC is the perfect example of that. Some players in this league would’ve tried to just bring the ball down, and find a teammate to keep the play alive. Mihailovic recognizes that there’s space in front of him, and attacks it, knowing that the ball will fall into that area. The technical ability needed to pull it all off is exceptional as well, planting his left leg, keeping his body over the ball, and swinging his right leg at the right time to connect with the ball.
The rest of the Fire season might not matter much, but it will give Mihailovic a great opportunity to solidify his spot as one of the first names in the team sheet. Getting consistent game time is key when recovering from injury, and he should be given plenty of time on the pitch before the campaign is done. His midfield counterparts are getting up there in age, and there’s a chance Bastian Schweinsteiger and Dax McCarty won’t be at the club at the end of next year. The spotlight will be on Mihailovic at that point, and he is set to shine with the eyes of many European scouts on him.
Djordje Mihailovic is the future of the Chicago Fire, and it’s just so good to see him back on the pitch where he belongs.