After gaining just four points in its first four games, it appeared as though Orlando City was headed for another long season without postseason play. However, in the fifth game, a two-minute span changed everything thanks to young rookie forward, Chris Mueller.
The Lions started the season against two teams in D.C. United and Minnesota United that were expected to be near the bottom of the MLS standings. They came away with only one point from those two home games before heading to New York and getting completely outplayed by New York City FC. Despite wholesale changes to the team, the results weren’t much different from years past.
Through the first 80 minutes against the Portland Timbers, the team showed a lethargic performance that had fans booing the home side. In an attempt to bring life to the team, Jason Kreis brought in forwards Chris Mueller and Stéfano Pinho. The energetic duo helped create more opportunities for the team and sparked the moment that may have changed the season.
Coming on for Josué Colmán in the 67th minute, Mueller saw his first chance in the 78th minute. The rookie failed to score during his first four games, but the best chance of his young professional career was about to come. As Sacha Kljestan lofted the ball over the Timbers defense and onto the foot of right back RJ Allen, who was streaking down the wing, Mueller made a trailing run with open space in front of him. With space and an open goal, Allen played the ball back for Mueller, who struck it with his second touch. A loud cry came from the crowd as the net rippled, but the ball had hit the side netting.
Two minutes later, Mueller got a chance for redemption. Darting toward the near post, the young forward got his head on a corner kick from Yoshimar Yotún to pull the Lions back within one. It was the first professional goal for the rookie and set in motion a change in the game.
With purple smoke still filling the box in front of “The Wall,” Dom Dwyer drew contact and went down, earning a penalty. Kljestan scored the equalizer from the spot and Dwyer would score the winning goal just four minutes later.
The next game against Philadelphia, the Lions were able to keep the Union at bay, gaining their first clean sheet of the season. Two late first-half goals by Dwyer and Mueller lifted the team to a 2-0 win. The Lions continued their winning streak Saturday night with a 3-2 win over the San Jose Earthquakes. Mueller’s opening goal was the third-fastest in club history — and fastest since the club joined MLS — and Dwyer scored his fifth in four games for what resulted in the winning goal before the Quakes scored twice in the final 12 minutes to pull within one.
Orlando City is currently on a four-game winning streak with each game coming with multiple goals, the first time scoring multiple goals in four straight league games since 2016. If the team’s current form continues and the Lions make the playoffs for the first time in club history, you’ll have to look back at the spark that changed the season in the 78th minute against Portland.
When Mueller hit the side netting two minutes before scoring, it sucked the life out of the building and seemingly put the game to rest. Nobody watching that game can truthfully tell you they thought the Lions would score three times to win. With a third loss in five games, things would have looked very bleak. However, Mueller’s goal sparked a revival for the team, helping them make a memorable comeback that may have changed the season.
Along with Dom Dwyer returning to his scoring form from 2014, when he netted 22 goals for Sporting Kansas City, Mueller has helped create a powerful Orlando City attack that has resulted in 12 goals in the last four games. Whenever a team in any sport makes a turnaround like the Lions have recently, there’s a moment that sparked the change. If Orlando City makes the playoffs for the first time in its MLS history, you’ll be able to look back at that header in the 78th minute against Portland as the time when he and the team aimed in the right direction. While it’s still to be determined, that may have been the most important moment in club history.