Wednesday was a bit eventful, to say the least.
Hours after announcing that ownership of the club has officially been transferred over the the Wilf family, Orlando City released a statement acknowledging that forward Chris Mueller had signed a pre-contract with a European club and would be leaving MLS following the 2021 season. We would eventually find out on Thursday that the club was Scottish side Hibernian FC, one of the top non-Celtic and Rangers clubs in the Scottish Premier League.
The news came as quite a shock as Mueller, who was coming off a career-year in 2020, which included a debut appearances for the U.S. Men’s National Team, is in the final year of his contract with Orlando and will now be leaving for free at the end of the season.
There’s plenty to unpack here, including the ramifications that Orlando will face down the road this winter, so let’s dive in:
On Chris’ move to Hibernian
Hibs aren’t a European powerhouse by any stretch of the imagination, let alone a powerhouse within their own league, which is routinely dominated by the two Old Firm clubs, so this move, and the timing of it, comes off as a bit puzzling for me.
At the very best this is a lateral move for Mueller, and you could probably make a solid argument that staying with Orlando in MLS would be a better development path than going to Scotland, which isn’t a place that you’d expect to see young Americans gravitate towards especially if, as I alluded to, it’s not to one of the two best clubs in the league.
At the time of writing this, we haven’t heard from Mueller, so any guessing about his thought process here is just that — guessing. I won’t pretend to know the first thing about Hibs, so whether or not Mueller goes over there and sees starting minutes within a short time is hard to predict.
The kid wanted to be in Europe some day, and that’s a reasonable desire, but the destination just feels odd — especially when you factor in the rumors of top Belgian clubs offering over $1 million for him.
So was this the best option on the table? Who’s to say.
Maybe, in Chris’ mind, this is a necessary stepping stone to something bigger. Only time will tell, but we wish him all the best.
The optics for Orlando
To lose Mueller this winter is one thing, but to lose him for absolutely nothing is a huge blow to the purse strings of the club (even with the new financial backing). Mueller was coming off an outstanding 2020 campaign, bagging 10 goals and seven assists in 22 appearances, with his name floating around in the MVP conversation at times.
Orlando doesn’t have a strong history of negotiating new deals with its young stars (Cyle Larin, for example), so Mueller presented the club with an opportunity to lock down a rising U.S. international and show future up-and-comers that hard work and success will be rewarded.
Again, we don’t know the whole story here at the moment — how much Orlando was willing to offer and how much longer Mueller even wanted to stay in Orlando — but to see the club lose out on such a talented and genuinely good guy (for free) is tough to see.
An eventual offseason ahead
With this situation wrapping up so soon and not dragging into the winter, Orlando City’s front office now has an advanced heads up and far more time to game plan for what is shaping up to be a very pivotal offseason for the club.
Getting the obvious out of the way, it’ll be the first offseason under the financial direction of the Wilf family, but it’s also has the potential to be the first big semi-overhaul of City’s roster under Oscar Pareja.
Mueller is gone, we know that, as too is Daryl Dike likely to be sold between now and the start of 2022. On top of that, both Nani and Mauricio Pereyra will be out of contract this winter, and with both players getting up there in age it’s fair to start thinking that they could be be playing out their final months with the club. If that happens, it would bring the club into winter transfer window with all three Designate Player spots open, large holes all across the attacking half of the field, and a possible mountain of cash to burn.
Given Pareja/Luiz Muzzi’s track record of signings over the last 18 months – Junior Urso, Pedro Gallese, Silvester Van der Water, and Antonio Carlos (Emmanuel Mas could add to that, but time will tell) – it’s hard not to salivate at the opportunity sitting there to strengthen the roster in dynamic ways.
One way or another, Orlando City will have its work cut out for them this offseason with the gobs of offensive production it could be looking to replace.
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