In his third match since returning to the lineup from an October 2017 ACL injury, Sunday’s home contest against Orlando City SC was a special one for second-year midfielder Djordje Mihailović.
For the first time in 327 days, the Homegrown product found himself on the box score after registering a pair of assists in the club’s 4-0 victory. However, while the physical side of his return to the pitch has been the story, Mihailović credits his quick re-integration into head coach Veljko Paunović’s side with a dedication to staying mentally sharp throughout his eight-month rehab process.
“Going into my first start against Montreal, it felt like I wasn’t injured,” Mihailović said. “It felt like my mental sharpness was there. I think that’s from watching trainings, going out and watching the guys play even when I wasn’t supposed to. I was supposed to stay inside, but I would love to go out with the guys and see how it was, because it’s important not to get too far away from the game."
Mihailović was a regular on the sidelines of Fire trainings throughout the spring and summer, wrapping up his morning treatments and workout routines with an appearance outside at the Toyota Park training pitch.
“Going out there every day with the guys, continuing to put myself into trainings and seeing what positions I would be in, and not losing my mental sharpness and my mental speed of the game was important," he said. "It helped me in Montreal, it helped me in Columbus, and now it’s just easier.”
It certainly looked easy last Sunday against Orlando City SC, when Mihailović showed his composure upon the receiving the ball inside the Orlando box after a first half defensive lapse. After a heavy touch from goalkeeper Joe Bendik was intercepted by Michael de Leeuw, Mihailović found himself needing to make a decision quickly before the Orlando defense could reset.
With Nemanja Nikolić just ahead of him signaling for the ball, Mihailović picked his head up and spotted Aleksandar Katai streaking into the 18 in a better position to score. A calm roll across the box allowed Katai to pass the ball into an open net and give the Fire a 2-0 lead.
“My assist to Katai shows that my mental sharpness, my calmness on the ball was there,” the 19-year-old said. “I think that’s from always paying attention to little things while I was injured. The game is fast, but if you take it easy at some points, if you learn to just settle down, then it’s not as fast as you think. I think in that play to Katai, it showed.”
Mihailović wasn’t done. In a uniquely special moment in the second half, the midfielder lined up to take a Fire corner kick. His ball played into the box found Johan Kappelhof, whose back-heel pass was played perfectly into the path of a sliding Michael de Leeuw for the third Fire goal.
Having spent more than eight months rehabbing ACL injuries alongside one another -- pushing each other through the rigorous workouts and the mental grind of a serious knee injury -- for Mihailović to assist on de Leeuw’s first goal since returning was a moment to remember.
“To be a part of it...to send the ball in and get a second assist on it was just amazing,” Mihailović said. “I remember right when he was coming at me I was like, “Oh my god. Remember four months ago where we were at?” Now he’s scored, and I’m just waiting on my goal now.”
While getting his first assists of the season were a milestone reached, Mihailović knows there is still more work to be done.
“I’m taking each game as a step up the ladder to getting my fitness back, getting my sharpness back," he said. "I want to give everything I’ve got to this club, to this team. I’m not really focused on my individual right now, I’m more focused on helping the team get where we can be. I think once that takes care of itself, than the individual stuff will come.”