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Sports Change of scenery lifted CF Montréal MVP Mihailovic to new heights

02:50  24 november  2021
02:50  24 november  2021 Source:   montrealgazette.com

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The transition to Canadian life has presented Florida native Djordje Mihailovic with some minor obstacles. He still doesn’t understand kilometres-per-hour when driving and didn’t realize this country celebrates Thanksgiving in October until his favourite restaurant was closed for the holiday.

Djordje Mihailovic of CF Montréal controls the ball against Noble Okello of Toronto FC in the first half during the 2021 Canadian Championship Final at Stade Saputo on Nov. 21, 2021, in Montreal. © Provided by The Gazette Djordje Mihailovic of CF Montréal controls the ball against Noble Okello of Toronto FC in the first half during the 2021 Canadian Championship Final at Stade Saputo on Nov. 21, 2021, in Montreal.

Otherwise, Mihailovic’s transition to CF Montréal, following four seasons with the Chicago Fire, couldn’t have been more rewarding individually.

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“I was ready for this change and it wasn’t a shock that I was going to a new team,” Mihailovic said Tuesday, during CFM’s season-ending availability — and after being named the club’s most valuable player. “The change of team and scenery really motivated me — joining a new team and proving I’m worth what was invested in getting me. The freedom given to me.”

Sent to his new team last December for the potential of US$1-million in general allocation money, the 23-year-old attacking midfielder salvaged a career that appeared stuck in neutral with the Fire.

Mihailovic proved to be the creative centrepiece of CFM’s attack, producing 16 assists, two short of New England’s Carles Gil, while surpassing the team record of 13, established by Ignacio Piatti in 2018. Mihailovic also proved durable, dressing for all 34 games, including 32 starts. He scored four goals.

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The club also announced veteran French defender Rudy Camacho as the defensive player of the year. The 30-year-old rebounded nicely from 2020, when every mistake he made seemingly ended up in the back of the net. In 31 games, all as a starter, the centre-back produced three goals while tallying 2,746 minutes. More importantly, Camacho helped tighten the team’s back line.

But while Mihailovic is one of the important pieces CF Montréal will build around, Camacho’s tenure is coming to an end following four seasons. His contract expires at the end of December, and sporting director Olivier Renard said he won’t return, although he was presented with a contract offer several months ago.

“I wanted to find a contract that would satisfy him,” Renard said. “This morning, I thanked him for giving 100 per cent until the last minute.”

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It was a challenging season for Renard’s team. Not only did manager Thierry Henry resign shortly before training camp, citing family reasons, the team again was forced to play early home games on foreign soil — Fort Lauderdale, Fla., after Harrison, N.J., in 2020 — due to pandemic travel restrictions at the time.

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While CFM (12-12-10) failed to make the playoffs, finishing 10th in the Eastern Conference after qualifying the year before in MLS’s expanded post-season pool, it remained alive until the final day of play when it lost 2-0 at home to Orlando City. The club salvaged that disappointment by capturing the Canadian Championship , last Sunday against Toronto FC, qualifying for CONCACAF Champions League play, starting in February.

And the players in general embraced the philosophy and style of play dictated by new manager Wilfried Nancy, a former assistant with the team. Nancy emphasized the collective effort over individual ones, liberally changing his starting 11. He preached building from the back, defending high, playing on the front foot while stressing the importance of ball possession.

But there were glitches. The team lost eight potential points due to late stoppage-time goals and didn’t help its cause with a 1-2-3 record down the stretch while attempting to claw its way above the playoff line. Nonetheless, CFM exceeded pre-season expectations.

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“Considering what we went through, I think we can say we had a great season,” said Victor Wanyama.

Renard said emphasis this short off-season will be placed on solidifying the back line. He said the club has an agreement with Gabriele Corbo, a 21-year-old Italian playing with Serie A Bologna after spending last season with Serie B Ascoli. Corbo could replace Camacho, while other reinforcements will be forthcoming.

“We have a young team,” Renard said. “If we stay with the same team, everyone with one year more experience, everyone will only be better with time.”

Renard said it’s not imperative to augment the roster with the signing of a designated player or other high-priced foreigner.

“My philosophy is not to have one big player on the field,” he explained. “It’s to have one team on the field. We have important players. We can build something important with the young players.”

hzurkowsky@postmedia.com

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