On Monday, April 15, The Mane Land’s Andrew Sharp published an excellent article analyzing Orlando City Head Coach James O’Connor’s constant lineup rotation. After my initial reaction of panic — because I personally do not see how the Lions can continue on with the way O’Connor is currently doing things — I realized that the use of Chris Mueller is hugely important to the club’s success, or failure, this season. Mueller, often affectionately referred to by his nickname “Cash,” is only seven games into his second professional season but has proven to be a critical piece to the Orlando City puzzle.
The runner-up for the 2018 Major League Soccer Rookie of the Year award, Mueller appeared in 32 of the Lions’ 34 regular season matches last year. Considered by most to be a week-in, week-out starter, 23 of those appearances did, in fact, come as starts — including his first-ever professional game — the season-opening draw with D.C. United. In those starts, Mueller scored two goals and assisted on seven others, meaning he contributed to a goal in about 40% of the times he made the starting lineup.
When coming off the bench as a substitute in 2018, Mueller only managed to score one goal with no assists, equaling just an 11% goal contribution rate in 258 minutes. That makes it seem pretty cut-and-dry — Mueller was more effective as a starter than as a sub in his rookie season. It therefore makes total sense that he would get the starting nod on opening day for the 2019 season, a match that saw Orlando City kick off the campaign with another draw, this time against New York City FC. Mueller was responsible for one of the the game’s two goals off a direct free kick.
In the six matches since, O’Connor has evenly split Mueller’s six total appearances between three starts (the aforementioned Week 1 draw, a Week 3 loss to the Montreal Impact, and the Week 7 loss to Real Salt Lake) and three uses as a legitimate super sub (Week 2’s draw at the Chicago Fire, Week 5’s home loss to D.C. United, and the Week 6 victory over the Colorado Rapids). While a quick glance at the win/loss/draw column for the six games Mueller’s featured in this season does not exactly paint a clear picture, a deeper look at the statistics starts to bring things into focus.
Interestingly, Mueller has scored one goal as a starter and one goal as a super sub, and the same can be said about his two assists. Where things begin to differ, however, is when and how those contributions came in their respective matches. The free kick goal from the NYCFC game sparked the Lions’ comeback from a two-goal deficit. His goal off the bench came when he was subbed on in the 80th minute with Orlando City trailing the Rapids, 3-2, again sparking a comeback, this time leading to the Lions’ second victory of the year. His two assists were on the only Orlando City goals in the losses to D.C. and the Impact.
For his part, Mueller has remained continuously positive, even though he would of course love to be a starter. “Everybody wants to play, everybody is competing for a spot, and I want to play as much as anybody else, but I also want to help the team in any way that I can,” stated Mueller in a piece by Mike Gramajo on the MLS website. Never hesitant to show that dedication and an unparalleled passion on the pitch, Cash has been a beloved fan favorite almost since his first minute in purple. That fan love has led to a lot of heated online debates about his role with the squad.
Here’s the thing: It doesn’t look like the answer to the question of Mueller as a starter or super sub is purely in the stats. Rather, the answer is clearly demonstrated on the pitch. As Andrew Sharp put it in a different article for The Mane Land, Mueller “completely swing[s] the momentum of the game in Orlando’s favor” when coming off the bench. TML’s David Rowe added the following.
“Mueller has done everything he’s done all season off the bench. Basically, he changed the entire feel of the match with his energy, pace, and enthusiasm. He is the beating heart of this team and quite possibly the most important player this year. He has grown as a player, and it is showing so far this season.”
That’s not to say that Mueller doesn’t demonstrate those qualities as a starter as well. When the opposing team’s back line is fired up at the start of a match, they are far more likely to have the energy to keep up with Mueller’s frenetic pace and movement. By the time that same back line has 60 or 70 minutes of running on their legs, the last thing they want to see is the super sub sprinting into the game on fresh legs with the quality he possesses.
The ultimate bottom line is this: O’Connor should be utilizing Mueller where he is most effective, and right now, that effectiveness is most evident in the super sub role.