While Orlando City has been good going forward, the Lions have struggled on the defensive end. Poor play and injuries have been a concern this season, but it has also shown rookie forward Chris Mueller’s focus on his defensive responsibilities.
In the first round of the 2018 MLS SuperDraft, Orlando City selected Mueller out of Wisconsin. While he entered the league as a forward, he’s been mostly playing in the midfield for Jason Kreis as a right wing in the 4-2-3-1, and has been doing very well in that role.
Coming into the season, expectations were tempered for Mueller, but the rookie soon made his name well known around Orlando. His first goal started a three-goal comeback against the Portland Timbers and he followed that up with goals in back-to-back games against the Philadelphia Union and San Jose Earthquakes. To date, he’s now played in 10 games with seven starts and three goals.
While many expected the rookie to play more of an attacking role, his position in the midfield has required him to accept certain defensive responsibilities, especially with the deficiencies of the outside backs.
Scott Sutter started the season as the team’s starting right back, looking to replicate his strong 2017 campaign. But Sutter’s playing time has been limited due to injury. RJ Allen, a new addition from New York City FC, joined the list of injuries soon after when he came off in the first half against the Philadelphia Union. The Lions are now on their emergency right back, Will Johnson, as the starter. While Johnson did play some right back previously, he’s really a midfielder playing out of position.
While the left side hasn’t seen the injuries of the right, starting left back Mohamed El-Munir has been a liability at times. He’s had his moments, such as chasing down Darren Mattocks or blocking a late shot against the Colorado Rapids, but has also had difficult moments. Against Minnesota United, he was beaten to the back post by Ethan Finlay, resulting in the game-winning goal. On Friday night against Toronto FC, he inexplicably went for the ball when Auro was trapped in the corner, allowing the defender to get to the end line and set up the game-winner for the Reds.
With such struggles on the back line, it’s imperative that attacking midfielders Justin Meram and Mueller get back to support. While more experienced midfielders on the team such as Meram, Cristian Higuita, and Yoshimar Yotún can be expected to handle those defensive duties, little was known about Mueller’s ability or willingness to do the “dirty work.” To the delight of Orlando City fans, Mueller has done very well in providing defensive support.
While Mueller’s attacking ability is certainly a need for the Lions, so too is the defensive support in which he has shown to be efficient. With the struggles the defense has had this season, it could be crucial in securing the necessary points to see the Lions reach the MLS Cup playoffs for the first time.