It is rare for a rookie to have a breakout season in MLS, but Chris Mueller fits that description. The Wisconsin product was drafted sixth overall and made an immediate impact. Mueller played in all but two of Orlando City’s league games in 2018, including 23 starts. His impressive play was enough to get noticed by the league, and he was an MLS Rookie of the Year finalist.
That all came in a rebuilding year for the Lions. Then-head coach Jason Kreis scrapped the previous team, and last season saw a complete lineup change. The rest is history, and now Orlando is in the same boat — two rebuilds in as many years.
“The intensity has been raised quite a bit [compared to last season],” said Mueller at training Friday. “We’re being pushed to our limits to kind of resort to that training later on in the season. I think that is just building us stronger and we’re building a fitness baseline.”
The question, though, is how the intensity and fitness will translate on the field. Kreis was big on fitness, and everyone saw how that turned out. The team had a six-game win streak early in the season but did nothing else since that.
The most important thing for Mueller is for the team to get to the next level. This new intensity, combined with the culture change, is an important step in that process. There will be a lot of hard work throughout the season, and the intensity cannot drop off once the season starts. Another important aspect is the entire team buying into O’Connor’s system, at it seems like the team is.
“I do have a lot of personal goals, but my primary focus is on the team and the team goals. I think that if the team fulfills its goals, then my personal goal will be fulfilled,” Mueller said.
Mueller finished 2018 with seven assists, second on the team behind Yoshimar Yotún’s 10, and three goals. Those are both numbers that he should look to improve. While Dom Dwyer is currently out, the striker should be back in time for the season opener. The team also brought in a few young forwards — Benji Michel and Santiago Patino. With all the new faces it may be difficult to build off Mueller’s 2018 season. However, the 22-year-old seems happy with the players on the team.
“I think the team comaradery has been really well and we’ve had a really good chance to build on that in the preseason,” said Mueller. “It’s nice to have a lot of new faces. There’s a lot of good guys and a lot of good players. We’re still learning each other, and it’s nice to get the chance to start building.”
It remains to be seen how the younger players will produce in MLS, but this camaraderie needs to continue to build on the field. There are still a few weeks left before the opening game, so there is plenty of time to continue to learn everyone’s tendencies. The first chance for fans to truly see how the team is coming along is at the Orlando City Invitational next week.