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View from the End Line: A Rookie Against the World

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Chris Mueller had a tremendous impact for Orlando City against the Timbers.

MLS: Portland Timbers at Orlando City SC Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

I arrived at the stadium on Sunday afternoon glued to my phone, waiting rather impatiently for the formation to be released. What many fans had been asking for was finally a reality, the Orlando City Lions were coming out to play the Portland Timbers in a 4-2-3-1. I almost couldn’t believe it.

The fans around me were shocked. My seat mates almost couldn’t believe their eyes. I got proof, though. It happened, the diamond had taken a back seat to a formation that many had hoped the Lions would adopt as the roster got fully fit and healthy.

Who could argue with this? Well, there is an actual large number of people on the internet, including some well-known contributors to the typical social media outlets that will argue, but that’s OK. Minus a Uri Rosell, this is exactly what I have been waiting for.

For the entirety of the first half, Orlando City looked the better squad. Orlando led in chances, shots, corners, possession, and pretty much every category (except shots on target), but still found itself down 1-0. There were a few flashes of brilliance, a few moments of awe, but also plenty of passes to nowhere, players colliding with each other on the pitch, general chaos and confusion, and a bit of what appeared to be issues with the new formation. It was a sobering first half, but the feeling from my surroundings was one of honest positivity.

That feeling died 14 minutes into the second half when the Lions fell behind 2-0, two minutes after Head Coach Jason Kreis made his first of three tactical adjustments, subbing RJ Allen on for Scott Sutter. Are the two related? I don’t think so. However, Allen would certainly play a key role in what finally happened at Orlando City Stadium. But the biggest impact to the match would come in eight minutes from the second Portland goal.

In the 67th minute, Kreis made his second of three tactical changes, bringing in Chris Mueller for a struggling Josué Colmán. At this point, the flow of the match started to obviously change as the number of warm bodies in seats started to slowly shrink. The chaos on the pitch, the miscommunication, the intersecting runs of players to the same spots seemed to slowly be fading. The chances were getting better, the opportunities were certainly growing, but one key piece stuck out to me: Mueller, the 21-year-old rookie who had people talking during preseason. From the second he ran onto the pitch and gave directions from the bench to the players he needed to, he did nothing but affect the game.

The very first thing I noticed was he was constantly calling for the ball. Not just standing in a spot and calling for it, but paying very close attention to his surroundings, where other players were, getting to an open spot, and all but demanding the ball be passed to him. When the ball was sent his way, he immediately looked to go forward to attack and to help push the players around him forward. He obviously ran onto the pitch with a chip on his shoulder, and he was determined to bring an impact to that match.

The pressure was certainly building and it was obvious we were going to be in for another wild finish to the match, but I could not help but watch Mueller. He looked like he was going to explode at any moment on that pitch. When Stefano Pinho came on for Justin Meram in minute 76, you could feel it. The stadium was something between an anxious buzz and wild disdain. The flow of purple down the stairs was increasing, as was the action on the pitch, but the fans walking out were hellbent on leaving for their own reasons.

Me, I was locked in my seat, still watching Mueller, still in awe of this “kid” running around, not in an arrogant way at all. He was simply not giving up, and it was infectious. You could see his enthusiasm permeate to the other players. That “just get the first goal” feeling was becoming visible in the 79th minute, and it completely seemed to be centered on the youthful exuberance of Mueller. And then it happened.

How much more do you need to see? Mueller, who just scored his first MLS goal, bypassed a massive celebration — one that I don’t think anyone would question if he wanted to take a few seconds to revel in his accomplishment — by running back to get lined up for the kickoff and reminding his fellow players that they still had time. He did not celebrate the goal except to pump his arms, run back to midfield, and yell at the rest of the boys in purple, “Let’s go!”

It took the team to win the match, but the spark that led to the powder keg detonating was none other than one of the newest Lions — not just in the sense of being new to the team, but being new to professional soccer period.

Mueller ran onto that pitch and dared anyone to stand in his way. His wild exuberance did not turn into destructive possession, it blossomed into a contagion of hope and teamwork that did something amazing. From 2-0 down to 3-2 up in the span of seven minutes. This is why you never leave a match early, as you will almost certainly miss something extraordinary, like a 21-year-old MLS freshman starring for the Cardiac Cats, the greatest show Orlando has ever seen.