Being crowned the MLS Cup champion is never a straightforward path. In fact, MLS has had seven different winners in its last eight seasons. While the ultimate prize may switch hands every other year, its winners typically have one thing in common: A difference-maker between the lines.
The Columbus Crew had Lucas Zelarayán pulling the strings on route to MLS glory last year, while Nicolas Lodeiro dictated proceedings for the Seattle Sounders in 2019. This reality is precisely why CF Montreal was so eager to bring in Djordje Mihailovic from the Chicago Fire, securing the young midfielder’s services for $800,000 in GAM this offseason.
The 22-year-old still has a way to go before being considered an elite playmaker in the league but has all the tools to take the next step in his career.
“I put myself in a situation where I have to grow and I have to improve as a player,” Mihailovic told SBI Soccer. “Montreal did a lot to get me and now it is one of those things where I have to step up and prove I am a player that is worth that.”
Mihailovic had his most productive season with the Chicago Fire last season, taking Major League Soccer by storm – registering two goals and seven assists in 18 appearances. The 22-year-old’s rapid rise to prominence did not go unnoticed, making his U.S. Men’s National Team debut in 2019. Mihailovic has no intentions of slowing down after making the switch.
“My main focus is the final product, goals and assists,” Mihailovic said. “If the team is willing to spend this kind of money on a player, the player has to deliver. That’s the first thing I’m looking at right now.”
Mihailovic made the difficult decision of leaving his boyhood club, after spending the last 18 years in Chicago – a decision that was expedited by a phone call from former CF Montreal boss Thierry Henry. The Arsenal legend reportedly played an integral role in Mihailovic’s arrival, convincing the young player to make the move.
Henry has since stepped down as CF Montreal boss for personal reasons, but this hasn’t changed Mihailovic’s outlook one bit.
“A lot of people have asked me about how I felt about Thierry (Henry), and people were saying “oh Djordje went to Montreal just to play for Thierry,” Mihailovic said. The former Chicago Fire midfielder, however, quickly set the record straight.
“His persuasion played a big part, but more importantly, it is the outlook of the club, and what they’re leading towards,” Mihailovic said. “That was mainly why I chose Montreal. To be able to work with this kind of group as well as push myself and get better.”
Mihailovic joins a relatively young CF Montreal side with no fewer than 10 new faces joining the club this summer. Olivier Renard has overseen a youth movement of sorts, hiring former academy manager Wilfried Nancy in Henry’s place. Nancy will reportedly continue Henry’s work and look to deploy a tactically flexible side in the upcoming season.
“It is never going be a 4-3-3 or 5-3-2, the philosophy within the team is what’s never going to change. You have to adapt to what the game gives you” Mihailovic said. “I think it suits me pretty well, when I come from the national team, it is a very high pressing system. We want to put teams under pressure and win the ball back as fast as we can.”
While the system may change from week to week, Mihailovic’s role is pretty clear-cut. When CF Montreal made the move for him, it was with the intention to provide some much-needed creativity between the lines. Mihailovic is very much the profile CF Montreal lacked last season, especially in the post-season.
Romell Quioto mostly led the charge, picking up nine goals and seven assists, but the Canadian side often lacked a creative outlet in big games. Mihailovic is a prototypical number 10 but has also featured prominently out wide. Despite his ability to feature anywhere in the final third, the 22-year-old knows exactly where he slots in best.
“Growing up I went from one player to the next. I have been watching soccer from such a young age, I have seen all different types of players,” Mihailovic said. “At the moment, my favorite player is Kevin De Bruyne. He is definitely someone I want to emulate on the field.”
The upcoming season will be a pivotal one in Mihailovic’s development. The young midfielder is coming off his best season in Major League Soccer and will be hoping to translate much of that momentum forward with his new club. While he admits making the move to Europe eventually has crossed his mind, it is not his immediate focus.
“As a young American who plays in the league, I look more towards the players that come from the league and go to Europe because in Christian’s (Pulisic) and in Gio’s (Reyna) case they started in Germany as youth players so they are quite different to me,” Mihailovic said.
American talent has emerged as a hot commodity this season, with Weston McKennie, Sergiño Dest, and Christian Pulisic among others all making a name for themselves at elite European clubs. Despite their success, Mihailovic has his sights set elsewhere.
“When I look at players like Tyler Adams and Alphonso Davies – those types of players who thrived in MLS and made the move there, it is definitely a big motivator,” Mihailovic told SBI. “It is something that I have in the back of my mind, but my main focus is on this team and the next game with this club.”
CF Montreal kicks off its season shortly, squaring off against arch-rivals Toronto FC on April 17. The Canadian side is coming off a disappointing season, slumping to a ninth-place finish and a first-round exit in the MLS Cup Playoffs. Mihailovic, however, has no doubt in his mind next season will only be better.
“I’m not too worried about that, we have to put all the pieces together and go into games like we are going to win and have that confidence,” Mihailovic said. “This team has a good history. As a group, we want to win trophies – that is the main objective.”