Does soccer have ‘franchise players’? Probably not yet, but 20-year-old Djordje Mihailović of Chicago Fire could be the first.
It’s easier to spot such players in other sports. John Elway, the Denver Broncos quarterback, being a prime example in the NFL, and the likes of Mario Lemieux and, more recently, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the NHL.
There are other examples in these sports and others across the US, but fewer in soccer. That’s because MLB, the NBA, NHL, and NFL are the go-to leagues for players at the top of these particular sports. But Major League Soccer doesn’t have the same draw for soccer players where the top level is still in Europe.
There are a handful of players who’ve spent time at one MLS club, but probably weren’t at the required level to fit the 'franchise player' term.
It could be said that Landon Donovan was a franchise player for LA Galaxy even though he didn’t begin his career there and spent time in Europe, but it feels like MLS is still waiting for its first.
In order for a team to possess a franchise player, they need to be at a high level, playing in a high-quality league, and the player needs to be one of the best players on the team and also remain with them for the majority of their career.
Which brings us back to Mihailović.
Who is Djordje Mihailović?
Born in November 1998, just weeks after Chicago Fire had lifted the MLS Cup in their inaugural season, Mihailović grew up in the city’s Lemont suburb and is a lifelong fan.
"I've been a fan of Chicago Fire my whole life,” he said. “I always went to the games as a kid, to be playing in the stadium now is just unreal."
His father, Aleks, played professionally for Washington Diplomats and Jacksonville Tea Men in the North American Soccer League, and his sister Aleksandra also plays, but she is also looking to go into broadcast journalism.
His parents are presidents and founders of the Chicago Blast club for whom Mihailović played as a youth up until moving to the academy setup at Chicago Fire in 2013.
“He was an amazing kid,” said Aleks last year. “You could see his focus and concentration was off the charts. He was a special talent,”
Mihailović played for the club in the Premier Development League, now USL League 2, and in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy league, scoring 12 goals in 19 games during the 2015/16 season, adding nine in seven in 2016/17 before signing a homegrown contract with the club in January 2017.
The 2017 MLS Homegrown Game took place in Chicago, so it was fitting that he managed to get on the scoresheet in the first minute of a 2-2 draw against Guadalajara Under-20s.
Games like this, and those at the ICC Futures Tournament, which brings together some of the best teams in global soccer for a summer tournament, provide young players with experiences which play a big part in their development.
Having broken into the Fire's first team, Mihailović suffered an injury setback at the end of the 2017 season, rupturing his anterior cruciate ligament in a 4-0 playoff loss to the New York Red Bulls. He has since returned to action, earning a national team call-up, and will hope to be a key part of the Fire first team in 2019.
Although injury restricted Mihailović to just 797 minutes of MLS action during his rookie year, there are a few standout stats from the 2017 season worth highlighting.
For a start, he averaged 2.14 successful tackles and 1.8 interceptions per 90. Then, when in possession, Mihailović completed 0.56 successful take-ons (from an attempted 1.24), and 1.46 key passes, as well as taking 1.01 shots.
This immediately paints a picture of a player who is creative but also willing to do defensive work, and one who is handy at set pieces.
Mihailović spent most of the 2018 season recovering from that knee injury. But he returned to the side in August to make eight starts in which he averaged 1.38 key passes and 2.16 interceptions per 90 minutes.
It seems the injury hadn’t changed much about his game and in the 2019 opener – a 2-1 loss against LA Galaxy – he made two key passes, three tackles and, perhaps surprisingly given he stands just 1.78m tall, won three aerial duels.
Mihailović is a creative midfielder and, perhaps, the most natural No.10 to be called up to the USMNT in recent times.
But, as the stats suggest, he isn’t a luxury playmaker and is willing to put the work in meaning he is in the mould of many modern No.10s who are more an eight-and-a-half. This means he can fit in a midfield three in a 4-3-3, or behind the striker in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1.
He’s a player for whom the stats do a pretty good job at telling us what type of player he is. Namely, one who can read the game well in attack and defence (evidenced by his ability to make key passes and interceptions) while being technically gifted (witness his set pieces and key passes).
What might the stats not tell us, though?
For a start, Mihailović is not the quickest across long distances, but nor is he slow, and is nimble enough to work his way out of tight situations and cover short distances to win the ball in defence.
He’s primarily right-footed and boasts accurate long-range passing as well as short, which lends itself well to his ability to take corners and free kicks. However, he tends not to use his weaker foot, though this could improve over time.
Mihailović is also good at timing late runs into the box, and the number of goals he scored at youth level reflect this. It should be only a matter of time before he starts racking up some numbers, but his role as a creator might mean he struggles to make double figures.
He can evade a press, dictate the tempo of a game, and is willing to try difficult passes – something he admitted he had to work on after joining the first team in Chicago.
“The first thing I had to learn was how to play quicker out of pressure," he told NBC. "I learned that quickly. All the guys going 100 per cent every day and respond. That's what you have to learn if you want to make it here.”
International - USMNT
Mihailović is another player from our USMNT Rising Stars series who spent time at the Residency Program in Bradenton, Florida.
He has scored goals in various youth tournaments and new USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter wasted no time in calling him up for his first senior squad, starting him in both games against Panama and Costa Rica.
Mihailović scored the first goal of the Berhalter era, against Panama, perfectly timing one of his late runs towards box and finishing like a striker.
“It was a great experience,” he said after the game.n“I learned a lot of things from Gregg and his staff, and the other players like Michael Bradley and Wil Trapp.
“I think it was a great learning opportunity for me as well as an opportunity to showcase what I’m capable of on the field. I think I did a great job of doing that. Of course, I have to keep working and improve myself to get called in.”
It was a promising sign for his future at international level and, as one of his nation’s modern-day No.10s, it’s likely that he’ll feature in future squads – even once the European based players are taken into consideration.
Playing with the likes of Dax McCarty and Bastian Schweinsteiger at Chicago Fire will be great for his development, and going forward he will be a key part of the first-team squad, should he remain injury free.
It’s for this reason that he has the potential to be one of Major League Soccer’s franchise players but, given his talent, it won’t be a surprise if he outgrows the league in the way Tyler Adams did last season.
MLS needs to grow and improve as a league before it can accommodate these players. The recent signs are that the US Soccer leagues are improving, but in their current guise with salary caps and other such limits, the best they can hope for is to be a stepping stone league to Europe.
Leaving Chicago would be tough for Mihailović, though, and his loyalty to the club combined with his talent means he has a chance to be Major League Soccer’s first real franchise player.
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