It was a season of struggles with silver linings for Djordje Mihailovic and CF Montreal

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Despite many challenges off the pitch, CF Montréal and midfielder Djordje Mihailovic have a chance to end the year by winning a trophy in the Canadian Championship Final against Toronto FC on Sunday. (Dave St-Amant/CBC - image credit)
Despite many challenges off the pitch, CF Montréal and midfielder Djordje Mihailovic have a chance to end the year by winning a trophy in the Canadian Championship Final against Toronto FC on Sunday. (Dave St-Amant/CBC - image credit)

From the pandemic, to a fan revolt, to a president's resignation, there was simply no shortage of drama off the field for Montreal's soccer team this season.

So it's perhaps not a surprise that the casual sports fan missed what Djordje Mihailovic, 23, accomplished on the pitch in 2021.

Mihailovic had 16 assists, breaking Ignacio (Nacho) Piatti's club record of 13 assists in a single season. He also accounted for four of the club's 46 regular season goals, meaning Mihailovic was directly involved with more than 43 per cent of all the scoring for CF Montreal this season.

"You can't put me in the same category as Nacho just yet," Mihaliovic said."It's going to take a lot more than 16 assists in a season to get to that level."

"I think it's the environment that I was put in. I came to Montreal with the thought that I'd be able to play how I know I can play and have the freedom and charisma to play with a lot of emotion that maybe I wasn't allowed to do in the past."

Mihailovic was acquired in a trade with Chicago on Dec.17, 2020 in exchange for $1,000,000 in financial considerations. That may not sound like a lot of money in terms of global soccer and its highly publicized multimillion dollar transfer fees but in the salary cap world of the MLS it was a significant sum and it didn't come with any guarantees.

Mihailovic was a homegrown player from the Chicago Fire's academy. But after four seasons with his hometown club and a significant ACL knee injury in 2017, which may have limited his productivity, he and the Fire were headed for a split.

"I learned about how much pain I can withstand without crumbling. I learned about hard work and what it's going to take to get to where I want to get," Mihailovic said. "You can either face adversity and crumble, or you can face adversity and rise."

This week Mihailovic was named as a finalist for CF Montreal's 2021 MVP award along with Rommel Quioto and Victor Wanyama.

Lessons in Living with Change

It's fair to say that the path that brought Mihailovic to Montreal wasn't part of the young American's career plan, but for him, embracing change is paying off.

It's something Montreal fans who are still upset about the club's rebranding can take into consideration.

Pablo A. Ortiz/CF Montréal
Pablo A. Ortiz/CF Montréal

"Before I was a player in Chicago, I was a fan in Chicago," Mihailovic said.

Like Montreal, Chicago went through a rebranding process of its own recently, changing its logo.

In January 2021, Montreal's then team president Kevin Gilmore announced the club was not only changing its logo, it was also changing its name from Montreal Impact to Club de Foot Montreal.

Since then frustration has boiled over into anger — and even some violence in the stands — among some supporters.

As a response, in September, the team banned certain supporter groups from the stadium. Now the section of Saputo Stadium that traditionally accommodated many of the team's most enthusiastic fans is closed off and wrapped in a tarp that reads "Droit Devant," meaning moving forward in English.

"I wore that old badge (in Chicago). And when you see the (new logo) as a supporter it can tend to sting a little bit but you take a step back and you see where the club is trying to go then it's the best," Mihailovic says.

"I can understand the club's perspective. I'm not going to speak for anybody who makes these decisions, but it's a club in transition. It's a club that is trying to modernize itself and you see that all over the world … and it's only going to help the club,"

Mihailovic also says the upheaval in the club's head office — club president Kevin Gilmore stepped down last month citing personal reasons — doesn't give him pause about committing to play in Montreal.

"Things like this happen. It's normal. Things change a lot in clubs," Mihailovic said."It's very easy for us to say that these are distractions. But as a player, and I'll speak for myself, I know my goals and I know what I want to help the team accomplish."

Most pre-season predictions had CF Montreal near the bottom of the league but despite all the additional scheduling difficulties brought on to Canadian teams by the pandemic they managed to remain in the playoff hunt until the season's final day.

A 2-0 loss at home versus Orlando on Nov. 7 meant they missed the post-season by only two points.

Chris Young/The Canadian Press
Chris Young/The Canadian Press

A chance at redemption

Mihailovic says he would have a much more sour taste in his mouth if the team's activities had ended with that loss to Orlando.

But on Sunday, Montreal has an opportunity to win a trophy and book its spot in next year's CONCACAF Champions League with a victory over their archrivals, Toronto FC, in the final of the Canadian Championship.

Milhailovic says this will represent only the second opportunity for him to win a tournament in his pro career. The first was with the American national team in the 2019 Gold Cup final against Mexico, a game they lost 1-0 on Soldier Field in Chicago.

"Personally, it's a huge deal. This is why we play," he said "we're playing our biggest rivals and we're playing for a trophy and it's the last game of the season. I know it's going to be full of energy and it's going to be cold so (the fans) are going to have to be jumping all 90 minutes."

Kick-off between CF Montreal and Toronto FC is at 1 p.m. on Sunday at Saputo Stadium. With a win Montreal will earn its fifth Voyageurs Cup since 2008 and take a spot in the CONCACAF Champions League which begins with the round of 16 in mid-february 2022.

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