By Jason Davis – WASHINGTON, DC (Jul 7, 2023) US Soccer Players – It’s probably no coincidence that the United States hit its attacking stride at the 2023 Gold Cup with Djordje Mihailovic on the field. After appearing as a second-half substitute against Jamaica in a hard-fought 1-1 draw to open the tournament, the AZ Alkmaar player started the Americans’ second and third group stage matches and delivered top-notch performances in both.
Goals, assists, the work on and off the ball that often gets lesser appreciation, Mihailovic excelled at it all. When it comes to actions that make the score sheet, Mihailovic ended the group stage with two goals and two assists. After the match against Saint Kitts and Nevis when Mihailovic registered those two goals and two assists, USMNT head coach BJ Callaghan described the midfielder’s output as typical of his talent.
“I thought he showed his quality,” Callaghan said. “He’s a player that is really comfortable in between the lines and as he gets closer to the penalty box, he becomes a real threat, whether it’s from running behind the line, arriving in the penalty box. So, I thought the performance we saw from Djordje was the performance that we expect from him.”
A deeper look at the stats reveals more of his contributions, including a passing record with just 12 misplayed balls over 184 minutes and eight chances created in that span. Mihailovic also earned the penalty that Jesus Ferreira converted in first-half added time against the Soca Warriors when he was taken down in the box by Trinidad and Tobagos’s Alvin Jones.
Chance creation is where Mihailovic thrives. As good of an all-around player as he has proven himself to be during this Gold Cup, his calling card is his ability to set up his teammates and occasionally score goals of his own. Callaghan’s words convey the belief that Mihailovic can thrive no matter the challenge and that the USMNT staff see in him a player capable of that most elusive of qualities: consistency.
A Chicago Fire academy product, Mihailovic was expected to hit the ground running as one of the brightest attacking prospects in MLS in his generation. An ACL injury robbed him of nearly a full season’s worth of games between October 2017 and August 2018. It wasn’t until 2019 that Mihailovic made his mark on the Fire and MLS. In that first full season as a professional, Mihailovic earned 16 starts and 1,450 total minutes, scoring three goals and collecting two assists in a year that saw the Fire finish out of the playoff picture.
Mihailovic flashed his ability to turn possession into chances in 2019 and 2020, but it wasn’t until 2021 that Mihailovic came into his own. A solid season during the Covid-effected campaign of 2020 earned him admirers across the league. One of those was CF Montreal’s then-head coach Thierry Henry, who reached out to Mihailovic to convince the Fire midfielder that Montreal could help him reach his full potential.
A December 2020 trade, among the richest in league history at the time, sent Mihailovic from his hometown club to Quebec. Though Henry resigned as Montreal’s head coach before the start of the 2021 season, the man who stepped into the role delivered on Henry’s promise to help Mihailovic raise his game.
New head coach Wilfried Nancy unleashed the new addition. Mihailovic finished second to 2021 MLS MVP Carles Gil in assists while scoring four goals of his own as CF Montreal finished 10th in the Eastern Conference.
In 2022 Mihailovic added more goalscoring to his game and put together an MVP-caliber start to the season, ultimately collecting nine goals and six assists in a season that saw Montreal set a new club record for points in a season. An ankle injury caused Mihailovic to miss six games, depressing his season totals and preventing him from joining the USMNT’s June camp.
The news of a summer deal with AZ Alkmaar to send Mihailovic to the Eredivisie and European soccer seemed a fitting reward for his growth in MLS. Mihailovic joined his new club in the winter transfer window and worked his way into the squad rotation by season’s end. In half of a season’s worth of matches, he made 15 appearances, five of them starts, and registered a goal and an assist.
The experience Mihaolovic gained in his first six months in Europe is paying dividends in his national team performances. As the Americans have navigated the tournament and arrived at the knockout phase of a title defense, Mihailovic has emerged as a critical part of the effort.
As BJ Callaghan plots his approach against Canada for Sunday’s quarterfinal in Cincinnati, he’ll undoubtedly have in mind the influential play of Mihailovic in a midfield trio that, from the start against Saint Kitts and Nevis and Trinidad and Tobago, also included Gianluca Busio and James Sands.
Ferreira might not be leading the tournament with a whopping six goals with Mihailovic’s work behind him. Mihailovic’s goals in the second group stage game were part of the difference between the Americans and Jamaicans when it came down to the tiebreaker for first place in the group. Canada is a difficult first knockout round opponent, but by finishing first the USMNT is on the opposite side of the bracket from Concacaf powers Mexico and Costa Rica.
Per FotMob, no player in the tournament created more big chances than Mihailovic in the group stage (4). The midfielder is fourth among players in total chances created, which adds assists (two for Mihailovic) and key passes that set up a goalscoring opportunity but did not result in a goal.
When Mihailovic was on the rise at Chicago, then putting in MVP-caliber performances week-to-week in Montreal, this was the national team influence that his play promised. Mihailovic is a playmaker doing exactly that, making plays for the USMNT.
Jason Davis is the host of The United States of Soccer on SiriusXM.
More From Jason Davis:
- Ferreira shows the strengths of his game for the USMNT
- Preview: Saint Kitts and Nevis vs USMNT, 2023 Gold Cup group A
- Preview: The USMNT’s group A opponents at the 2023 Gold Cup
- Five USMNT players move from the Nations League win to defending the Gold Cup
Photo by Shaun Clark – ISIPhotos.com