Chicago Fire midfielder Luka Stojanović celebrated his birthday on Jan. 4, ringing in his 27th trip around the sun alongside the annual swell of hope that maybe the new year will be better than the last.
Like most folks' 2020 experience, that bar doesn't appear a particularly high one to clear.
Tuesday, Jan. 19, marks six months to the day since Stojanović suffered an MCL tear 44 minutes into his first career start for the Fire. It was a low moment in a year filled with challenges.
"It was difficult, mentally," he said.
Stojanović had arrived in Chicago on March 7 after being acquired from Serbia’s FK Čukarički. Five days later, Major League Soccer suspended the 2020 regular season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After training with his new teammates and coaches only three times, he’d spend the next three months getting to know them through his various screens, alone in a new apartment in a new city in a new country.
Hope was renewed as the team was allowed to resume training in June, and more so when the league announced its return to play with the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando in July.
Stojanović, at long last, made his Fire debut as a second half subs in the team’s tournament opener on July 14, almost five months after his signing was announced in late February. He played the final 16 minutes in the Club's 2-1 win over the Seattle Sounders FC.
He then earned his first start for head coach Raphael Wicky in the team’s second match of group play against the San Jose Earthquakes on July 19. Late in the first half, Stojanović challenged defender Nick Lima in an aerial dual. The ensuing collision forced both players to land awkwardly, leaving the Serbian clutching his left leg and ultimately forcing his exit just before halftime.
As quickly as his debut season had started, it was over.
“When I got injured, from the first day I was a little afraid,” he said from his home in Serbia on Monday. “I wasn’t thinking it was such a difficult injury. I was surprised when I heard from the doctor that I could be out for 4-6 months.”
He later recalled a conversation with chicagofirefc.com in last July just prior to his debut about remaining positive and keeping his goals in front of him. That mindset hasn't changed.
Luka's looking forward to 2021. pic.twitter.com/QAJLGs7HJN— Chicago Fire FC (@ChicagoFire) December 21, 2020
After undergoing successful surgery to repair the torn ligament, the Fire granted Stojanović permission to return to Serbia. Rather than having him endure the mundanity and isolation that tends to accompany a long rehabilitation process, Stojanović was able to lean on his wife and children during those tough early stages.
The six months that have since passed have seen him renew his commitment to both the sport and to the Fire as he’s navigated the often grueling road back from a knee injury.
“They’ve given me time,” he said. “That’s the most important for a player. They said to make the best recovery and to focus on the new season. This is my goal. I hope when we start, I can start with them from the first day.”
“If I look back now, I can’t change anything,” he added. “I’ve just done my best, and that’s why I’m ready for 2021 -- to start from the beginning.”
While in Serbia, Stojanović has worked with both a technique coach and a strength coach, and he continues to diligently follow the training regiment provided by the Club. He has also progressed to the point where he’s resumed workouts with a ball at his feet, a legitimate milestone on the knee-related recovery timeline.
“I follow all the programs,” he said. “Everybody is always in touch. They’ve done well. That’s how I’m going to remember this injury. They gave me a lot of power. I never felt alone.”
“The players and the coaching staff and medical staff became my family from the first day I arrived there. They are with me in this whole situation, even when I was in Serbia. I keep in touch with everybody. That’s the most important thing for me.”
The injury was the most serious of Stojanović’s 10-year career. In late July, at the outset of his recovery, he set a personal goal to be able to participate without limitations at the beginning of the team’s 2021 preseason camp.
“When I was still in Chicago with the doctors and the medical staff there, we talked about playing the friendly games in the preseason right from the beginning,” he said. “That’s the most important thing for a player to get in good shape for a season that isn’t easy.”
While that timing is still to be determined, he’s confident he’ll be ready to achieve that goal as soon as the green light is given.
“I think if everything was normal -- for example, if the team was training now -- I think for sure I could be 100% training with them,” he said.
In the meantime, amid his incremental steps toward full fitness, he’s kept visions of stepping onto the Soldier Field pitch for the first time in the front of his mind. His recovery goals are nearly met, a return to Chicago with his family is on the horizon, and there is opportunity ahead at last to show off his full abilities for Fire fans.
“I cannot wait to see the full Soldier Field and to see us playing for Chicago,” Stojanović said. “I can’t wait anymore for the season to start. I believe if we are a unit - the players, staff, fans, and everybody in Chicago - I think we can do a lot.”