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Djordje Mihailovic shows his development in Fire win

Sep 29, 2018; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Fire midfielder Djordje Mihailovic (14) reacts after scoring a goal against the Los Angeles FC during the first half at Bridgeview Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 29, 2018; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Fire midfielder Raheem Edwards (7) takes the field before a game against the Los Angeles FC at Bridgeview Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — The Chicago Fire beat LAFC 3-1 Saturday despite already being eliminated from playoff contention, and Djordje Mihailovic took center stage.

Here are three things that stood out from the match from the Fire’s side of things.

Playing out the season

The Fire were eliminated from playoff contention following Wednesday’s 2-0 loss at New York City FC. There are still three games left in the season, so what’s there to play for?

On Saturday the Fire didn’t look like a team with nothing to play for. With the way MLS contracts are structured, most of the players aren’t guaranteed heading into 2019. A significant chunk of those players have legitimate reason to question their future with the team. That’s one motivation, but coach Veljko Paunović took pride in his team’s effort.

“I think it’s very important to understand today we were the team that didn’t give up on the season,” Paunović said. “We respected our opponent, we respected our opponents around the league because we performed. But you go outside and see the team like this, like us, the whole season was difficult for us. Now we are out of the playoffs and then you go step on the field and you still play until the end and you give your best and you want to win. I think that’s something to be respected.”

The development of Djordje Mihailovic

Mihailovic signed a homegrown deal out of high school before the 2017 season and showed some promise in his rookie year.

He earned some consistent minutes in the second half of the season. He totaled seven starts and had 17 appearances.

Then he tore his ACL in the playoff defeat to the New York Red Bulls.

Mihailovic has started five of the past six matches since his return and scored what was arguably the best goal of the Fire’s season in Saturday’s 3-1 win against LAFC. His volley opened the scoring in the surprise win.

Mihailovic also assisted on the Fire’s third goal. He laid a ball off to Aleksandar Katai on a counter that led to a first-touch finish.

Still just 19, Mihailovic has a goal and three assists in his six appearances this season. His game isn’t fully polished, but he is showing improvement in his game despite missing a significant chunk of the 2018 season.

“Every day of training, every game I feel more confident with my knee and with playing again,” Mihailovic said. “Especially coming into the team and them using me as a player that they need and I think each game I think you can see that improving.”

Mihailovic missed crucial development time while being out with the injury, but thinks he improved regardless.

“With the injury it made me look at the game a different way and just watching from outside you really pick up things that you wouldn’t if you were actually in training,” he said. “I think it helped me.”

Stefan Cleveland making his case in net

Cleveland is a second-year goalkeeper who went through his rookie season without playing for the Fire. This season he has four MLS starts and made five saves against LAFC.

Richard Sanchez has been the starter for most of the season, but has struggled. He appeared to lose the job in the middle of the season to Patrick McLain, but McLain has been out with an injury since making three straight starts in May and June.

The Fire could be trying to see what they have in Cleveland by giving him some starts late in the season. Is he a potential option as a starter down the road or is he simply playing to stay under contract in 2019?

At least with what he showed on Saturday, Cleveland is worth keeping on the roster. His first save was a big stop on Diego Rossi.

“I think to make a big save the first time you touch the ball with your hands kind of gets you going and gets the momentum when he snuck in behind the line,” Cleveland said. “I really wish we could have kept the shutout, but it was a great goal.”

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