For Mihailović, it’s a testament to the work he’s put in to get back into the mix since his two appearances in the 2019 Gold Cup. He got a start against Panama and an appearance off the bench against Guyana in the group stages. Earlier in 2019, Mihailović scored in his national team debut also against Panama.
For Pineda, this is an exclamation point on what has been a phenomenal rookie season. The Supporters’ Player of the Year, the first Fire Homegrown to start every match as a rookie, third in MLS in minutes played, Fire Defensive Player of the Year, and now his first senior call up to the USMNT.
As these two know, the work has only now begun. Getting called into camp is simply that, getting called in. Now it’s about expressing yourself and gelling with the guys, but also playing to your strengths that ultimately fit into Head Coach Gregg Berhalter’s system.
Here's how the two Fire Homegrowns might fit into the MNT’s plans ahead of their friendly against El Salvador from Inter Miami CF Stadium in Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 9 and beyond.
The Lemont, Ill. native Mihailović has been utilized in that sort of No. 8/10 hybrid in his appearances so far for Berhalter.
The former Columbus Crew coach likes to play a 4-2-3-1 formation, but it is much more fluid than that. It changes throughout the game depending on where the players are on the pitch and whether or not they are in possession. You could also call it a 4-3-3 depending on what kind of mood you’re in.
Last time out, Mihailović played alongside Seattle’s Cristian Roldan. The two sat in front of Inter Miami’s Will Trapp as the three central midfielders.
For the Fire this year, Mihailović showed he can play on the exterior or interior of head coach Raphael Wicky’s 4-2-3-1, which does bare some resemblance to Berhalter’s. The biggest similarity is the fluidity of the systems. Just because Mihailović was starting as the No. 7 or No. 11 didn’t mean he wouldn’t find himself in pockets of space right in front of the opposition’s backline. Whether it be making runs in behind after the No. 9 checks in or creating space off the dribble or off the ball for the outside back to get forward, Mihailović has shown that his strengths play in Berhalter’s system in two different positions. Versatility makes you invaluable.
As for Pineda, his versatility is worth noting as well. The Homegrown product out of Bolingbrook, Ill. primarily played at the No. 6 position coming into the Fire as a rookie. He played that role a few times this season before it was suspended due to COVID-19, and once against Sporting Kansas City. He played the majority of his minutes as the right center-back, a massive talking point for Gregg Berhalter and the national team. It seems to be a foregone conclusion that John Brooks is going to be the starting left center-back when the U.S. are rolling out their best XI, but the job next to the Wolfsburg man is still very much in flux.
Being a center-back in Berhalter’s system has the normal requirements of being a really strong and solid defender, which goes for anyone at the position. He also puts an emphasis on being able to really ping the ball and move it with pace, precision and break lines. Pineda has shown that he can do that time and time again for the Fire.
The most memorable display of his vision and willingness to play-make from that position was against Nashville. Pineda had the ball after a decent spell of possession with Nashville sitting in a deep block. The former Tar Heel took about five dribbles from midfield into enemy territory and caught Nashville Designated Player Randall Leal napping before slipping a perfect ball through for Boris Sekulić to finish in style.
That sort of authority and distribution from the center-back position is crucial for Gregg Berhalter, and is a big reason for Pineda’s invite to camp. He could also be used as that fulcrum in the middle of the field as that deep-lying number six.
Not only is there going to be the ever-important FIFA World Cup Qualifiers for Qatar 2022, but there’s also the 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup, the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, as well as Concacaf Nations League.
The Olympics are a bit of a different animal, as the tournament is played by Under-23 squads with up to three players allowed that are 23 or older. In Tokyo, however, some 24-year-olds will be allowed to play without the over-age exception due to the games being pushed back a calendar year. That squad will be led by head coach Jason Kreis, and Mihailović is in a good position to earn a spot having served as the team's captain throughout much of the cycle. He was named to the Olympic qualifying roster earlier this year before the tournament was postponed due to COVID-19. It will now be played next spring with both Fire players eligible for the team.
There’s (hopefully) going to be a ton of USMNT football coming. There’s a lot of talent now scattered all over the globe at clubs including Barcelona, Juventus, RB Leipzig, Chelsea, Bayern Munich and more. This means it will be more difficult to get guys across the pond in either direction for competition, which is to say nothing of the problems COVID-19 has presented in that department or how long those will last.
Conversely to what we saw in the USMNT’s latest outings against Panama and Wales, this camp will be dominated by domestic American players. This gives Mihailović and Pineda a great opportunity to show their stuff and make a case for some of these massive fixtures and tournaments that lie ahead for the USMNT. Berhalter has made it abundantly clear that they want to go young.
Pineda and Mihailović have been two of the better young homegrowns in MLS this year, and both are not yet even 24.