A happy Djordje Mihailovic, is a good Djordje Mihailovic.
And he wasn’t always that in 2020, playing under Raphael Wicky for his only previous club, Chicago Fire.
Forced to play further left in a wider role than he’d prefer, and being benched during the MLS-is-Back tournament hardly presented a platform from which to get the best from the young US international.
And even though there was at least a cosmetic ‘burying of the hatchet’ between coach and player, the writing seemed to be on the wall, especially with Mihailovic (still a valuable asset at 22) entering the last year of his contract.
Although Djordje plays down the significance of being shunted to the left tactically, it’s difficult to discount the issue when determining what led to Chicago disharmony. He had this to say on Saturday...
“I was always in the middle my entire life, never played as a winger up until last season when I was moved to that position. But even after moving wider I didn’t switch my style of play in any way. I continued to play like an attacking midfielder only perhaps twenty yards to the left instead.
“And of course I’m not your conventional winger. I’m never going to beat three men with pace, I’m going to be like a play-maker on the outside, but it’s one of those things where I feel more comfortable playing inside.
“Not saying I don’t feel comfortable playing on the outside at all, but when I look back at this kind of game today, I was able to move outside and get the ball, or stay inside and get the ball. That also goes a lot for my team-mates in creating those spaces for me and getting the ball to my feet.”
He sounds happier and in a better place than last season. He may still not have visited Montreal other than as part of an opposition squad, but he appears to have settled in consummately well with his new team-mates.
“Today’s result was exactly what we wanted against our rivals. First for the supporters back home, we know how big this game is for them and being the first game of the season too, it adds to the importance.
“We were together fully for about two weeks maybe, and I thought given the circumstances with players away with their national teams for instance, and not playing too many pre-season matches, we did phenomenally well.
“Regarding the team, in my four years so far in the league this is one of the best locker-rooms I’ve been a part of so far.”
A significant statement indeed, but possibly one that will be tested as the season progresses. There are sure to be bumps on the road, but if squad camaraderie is as stellar as Mihailovic says, then this latest Montreal group may have half a chance...
The young American, a silver-medallist at the last Gold Cup Final (Mexico won 1-0), has also had his confidence boosted by the faith shown in him by Wilfried Nancy and his coaching staff.
“Where I played today is the spot on the field where I feel most comfortable. I like to play between the lines and some of my favourite players around the world play that position. I look back at this game and felt very comfortable playing behind our two forwards.
“I feel a lot of belief from the coaching staff to put me in that position. They want the ball through the middle and to create chances by passing and not just playing long balls and I believe in my skills enough to be that link up, to play between the midfield and front lines.”
Such belief could be key. Mihailovic may be the type of player who responds best when given more responsibility and can tangibly feel trust from his coach and playing peers. Speaking last November to Hot Time In Old Town, our sister site covering Chicago Fire, US coach Gregg Berhalter suggested Mihailovic’s mentality is key to his long term success.
“Djordje’s the type of player that, he’s as good as he sets his mind to, because he has fantastic talent, but it’s more about him just applying his talent,” said the national coach.
Flicking back to Saturday, Mihailovic wasn’t overly surprised at the space he was afforded in the derby down to the tactics deployed, but he did caution about getting carried away given that Toronto had players missing and may have been affected by ‘heavy legs’ following their exertions against Leon.
“.... although it is a derby and the first game of the season. Emotions should be through the roof! Thats exactly how we felt, said Mihailovic.
“We felt when we started the match we wanted to be on top of things. Now we just gotta’ look at the video and learn from this and then move on to the next game.”
Much has been said up here in Montreal about MLS pundits’ predictions relegating the side to an expected last place in the East...
“No, we don’t talk about that. I was thinking before if the media wants to say those things and they’re so certain, why don’t they put their money where their mouth is, bet against us and see how much they win or lose?
“The locker room doesn’t bat an eye towards it. We know how good we can be and it’s the confidence within the group that’s going to bring us success or failure and as of right now confidence is good.
“We can’t let it get too high though. It’s just one game out of thirty-four. And all our focus now is on the next game against a really strong team.”
It’s an open secret, certainly while still at Chicago, that Mihailovic harbors a keen interest to try his luck one day in Europe, and further to cement a place in the US national team.
Far too soon yet for wild predictions, but his start in a Montreal shirt has been as promising as any debutant that’s gone previously. Topping it off with an exquisitely taken, composure-laden finish beyond a bewildered Alex Bono was the icing on the cake.
If it continues, Europe may beckon sooner than Montreal fans will like....
Check out the latest, The Ball Is Round Podcast (Episode 25). Recorded Wednesday evening (14 April), the TBIR team discusses the CFM v TFC clash (with special guest Michael Singh of Waking The Red website, Montreal football issues of the week, their top three picks for per Conference, Concacaf Champions League & Canada’s WNT in the UK...
Plus all the usual favourite features... including, Eve’s Time Machine... Don’t miss it!
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