A calendar year that began under a cloud of uncertainty has ended on a high note for 20-year-old Djordje Mihailović.
The Chicago Fire Homegrown midfielder recently learned that he’d earned his inaugural inclusion in a senior U.S. Men’s National Team event, drawing an invite to the first January Camp under newly appointed manager Gregg Berhalter.
Mihailović’s upcoming January experience will be a stark contrast from where he sat 12 months prior, when he was just a few weeks removed from knee surgery stemming from a torn ACL – the first significant injury of his young career. After a promising rookie season for his hometown club, the former U.S. youth international was facing an uphill climb toward reestablishing himself within the Fire first team and any discussion of a national team call-up at any level.
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“When I talked to the trainers last year around this time, they asked me to write on a piece of paper where I saw myself in a year from now,” Mihailović said Thursday after the roster was made public. “One of the goals and one of the things I said was I see myself with the national team. I worked through that whole process of recovering and it’s put me here, it’s everything that I’ve worked for. It’s going to be great to represent the Club and the city at that kind of stage with the national team.”
Following nine months of rehab, Mihailović made a successful return to match action on August 18 and was in the Fire starting XI to face Berhalter’s Columbus Crew SC side five days later in Bridgeview. The Lemont, Ill. native looked like his old self down the stretch in 2018, contributing four assists and one goal – an MLS Goal of the Week-winning strike in a 3-1 win over LAFC – in fewer than 600 minutes.
As the second-youngest player included in Thursday’s roster announcement, Mihailović will be one of seven fresh faces gaining their first experience at the senior international level under Berhalter.
“What I Iooked at and what we started to see looking at the younger players that were performing in Major League Soccer, we know it’s not an easy league to perform in,” Berhalter said Thursday via teleconference. “I think the younger guys – like [Auston] Trusty, [Mark] McKenzie, Mihailović who just started playing towards the end of the year when he got fit – are interesting. To be able to perform in MLS at that young of an age I think means you have quality. With Djordje in particular, we see a very versatile midfield player, a creative midfield player, who can create goals and score goals himself. I think that’s always a quality you’re looking for.”
In addition to the squad’s promising up-and-comers, Mihailović is part of a January camp midfield that features seasoned MLS and international veterans like Michael Bradley, Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, Sebastian Lletget and others. With a strong showing on the training ground, Mihailović could make himself an attractive option in attacking midfield for friendlies against Panama (Jan. 27) and Costa Rica (Feb. 2).
“The first thing is that I have to make a good first impression, this is my first camp and I can’t go in thinking I’m going to be there every camp from now on,” Mihailović said. “I have to show I have the quality to stay with the group and to prove that I’m good enough to be there going forward, whether it’s the Gold Cup, World Cup Qualifying and so on. It’s been a long time since I was with a national team camp, almost two years since the U-20s, and just the feeling of representing the country and wearing the colors and the badge – I’m blessed to be able to.”
Likewise, the new boss of the U.S. Men’s National Team also will be looking to make a strong first touchpoint with his group when camp kicks off on Jan. 6 in Chula Vista, Calif.
“I’m trying to get a sense of the past, but also the future, what this group is looking for,” Berhalter said. “I think we can use this opportunity, this training camp, to start the process and set the tone for what this group is going to be like. We’re talking about three things. It’s building a culture within the team, instilling a style of play, and competing in every single thing we do.”