Analysis: Why Chris Mueller is flourishing this year with Orlando City

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Historically speaking, the MLS SuperDraft has not been a deep pool of talent for clubs to pick from. Just take a look at Orlando City‘s history in the event over the last six years and you’ll find that the list of impact players from the draft doesn’t stretch far past its first-ever pick in 2015, Cyle Larin.

Over the last several years, MLS clubs have prioritized the draft less and less, opting to focus on internal player development ladders and players from outside of the country. It would help explain why Orlando City only had one pick in the 2018 SuperDraft.

With the sixth overall selection, the Lions took Wisconsin forward Chris Mueller, a four-year collegiate player and reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in 2017 with the Badgers.

Mueller carried that momentum over to MLS with the Lions, hitting the ground running in his rookie season, notching three goals and seven assists in 32 appears for Jason Kreis‘ side, finishing second in the MLS Rookie of the Year race. He continued that growth in 2019 with another promising campaign, finishing with five goals and three assists.

So far through four games in 2020, Mueller has four goals for Orlando City, including his game-tying kick against Inter Miami in the MLS is Back opener last week and two against New York City FC on Tuesday night.

SuperDraft players rarely stick around with the clubs that drafted them for more than a few seasons, let alone become household names long-term for those clubs, but with Mueller, Orlando City believes it has someone to be excited about.

“Chris has been growing, he’s still a young player but he’s very smart,” said head coach Oscar Pareja recently in a video call with the media. “He’s a player who’s understanding better the game, adding to his game, daily he’s getting better and that makes me happy. He receives well the information. He’s a player who can score, who can play wide, inside — as a second striker, he’s learning his job on playing the spaces. I see him progressing and he’s a big hope for the club.”


Growth 

Mueller’s growth on the field becomes more evident every time he steps on it. Technically, he’s one of the more talented forwards throughout the league. He’s proficient in one-on-one situations, taking the ball and dribbling right at players. He’s capable of hitting tough passes in key moments. And his shooting skills are more polished than you’ll find from most players coming out of college.

Mentally, he’s taken large strides over the years and he’s starting to look more and more comfortable playing at the highest professional level in the country.

Good attackers are good at playing into space, staying between the defenders to receive the ball, and creating their own space through movement by changing speeds, angles, and directions with their runs. Mueller does all of those things well.

The play below — against Colorado earlier this year just before the league shut down — is a perfect example. Mueller could have hoped that Andres Perea would play that forward in the air, making a straight run towards the goal. Instead, he changes his angle as to stay onside while making his run through the backline, and follows Perea’s ball in perfectly to connect with the pass and score the goal.

Against Miami, Orlando City ran a 4-2-3-1 with Mueller on the right side of the field. For much of the night, however, that 4-2-3-1 formed into somewhat of a three-back lineup, with Ruan pushing high up the right wing, covering that space to allow Mueller to play inside and find space to make runs and passes forward.

Below we see a shot from the 61st minute. Mauricio Pereyra pushes in, as Mueller, in space, make a run up-and-out. He would eventually get the ball after his run, Pereyra looked to dish off. It’s heads up plays like that, even if it wasn’t a direct through-ball, that create opportunities.

On the ball, his instincts and decision-making have also improved. I mentioned above that he’s looking much more comfortable playing at the top level, and that’s because one of the biggest knocks against Mueller has been how he perceives the game and the decisions that he makes in attacking moments. At times, it would look like the game was moving too fast for him.

The video below is a trio of clips from 2018, Mueller’s rookie season. In it, it highlights a few different passes that were either he was trying to force them through in tough spots, was making the passes a step or two too late, and the passes themselves lacked pace and confidence.

2019 saw improvement, with him starting to make more challenging and confident passes like these:

That brings us to 2020, where against Inter Miami Mueller set up Tesho Akindele with this wonderfully-placed service into the penalty area.

Quick (and smart) decision-making is one of the things that Mueller has come a long way on. In between his first touch to bring the ball down and second touch to set up his own cross, he makes a darting glance up to catch Akindele’s far-side run. The cross itself is also perfect.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence that Mueller has started to show more intelligence and attention to what’s happening around him since Nani arrived last year, or maybe the Portuguese star has been parting some wisdom on the young winger. Regardless, it’s hard to teach that level of vision and awareness, so the fact that Mueller has it and it’s now combining it with his physical talent, it should indeed give Orlando City, as Pareja said, a big hope for the club.


State of mind 

Mentally, Mueller appears to be a in a great state, which has gone a long ways towards influencing his play on the field.

“Chris, first of all, is an amazing player — there’s no question about it. He’s an amazing player. 1-v-1, one of the best players I’ve played with, and I think you don’t see that a lot of times with an American, so I think he’s kind of a special talent,” Akindele said of Mueller on Sunday.

“And I think with him he’s big on mentality, I mean if you guys follow him on social media he’s always posting quotes about his mentality and being positive and stuff. So I think for him, the main thing is making sure his mind is in the right place and right now he looks have his mind in the right place, and when he’s in that mode I think he’s one of the top players in the league. It’s going to be hard for teams to stop him because he’s a really tough player.”

Mueller is a big reader. He even has a book club and website dedicated to sharing stories related to personal growth and building “a community of like-minded, goal-oriented individuals who all strive to be the best versions of themselves, every day,” as written on the site.

After Tuesday’s win over New York City, Mueller said the latest book he’s read was “It Takes What It Takes,” by Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.

“It’s all about Russell Wilson and how he approaches his mindset and his game situation from a standpoint where he doesn’t let his emotions dictate his judgment on the next play,” he said. “I thought that that’s been helpful for me, especially bringing a new mentality to my game and trying to adapt that mindset.”


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