At the beginning of the season one of the hot topics for debate among Orlando City fans was how best to use Chris Mueller. He was absolutely devastating coming off the bench in a 4-3 win over the Colorado Rapids early in the season, and that game, along with several other sterling substitute appearances, prompted many discussions over Mueller’s best role with the team. Many people felt his high energy and hard running, not to mention the goals he scored and chances he created meant that he deserved to start rather than come on as a substitute. Equally as many people fell on the other side of the fence, and were of the belief that his destructiveness as a super sub was invaluable, and bringing on a fresh Cash to run at defenders was a potent weapon when the team needed to change a game in the second half.
Regardless of what you believed at the time, the simple fact is that Mueller is continuing to grow as a soccer player, and is really beginning to come into his own as a Lion. He already has two more goals than all of his debut MLS season, which saw him bag three; and he also currently has three assists compared to his total of seven for the entirety of last season. Another thing to note about his five goals is that they’ve continued to flow even after the start of the season. Those of you who endured the misery of last season will remember that while Cash started off the year red hot he didn’t record any goals after the end of April.
Beyond the stats though he’s looked like a different player for large stretches of this season. Many times last year his high motor would work against him, and he would dribble down blind alleys, hold onto the ball too long, and lose it. This year he’s tending to pick his head up more often and make the correct decision, whether it be to shoot, pass, or dribble. By simply using the eye test Mueller looks like a more complete player — quicker, leaner, and more capable of impacting the game no matter whether he plays 90 minutes or 10.
A perfect example of the changed Cash is the goal that he scored on Wednesday night in the 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Union. He picked up the ball in a great area just over the midfield line, got his head up and saw the space in front of him and immediately drove into it; continuing to run right at the Union defenders as they backed off and gave him space. While he certainly could have passed to Tesho Akindele, the decision to shoot was just as good of an option given that there was a gap to the left of Matt Freese in goal, and he was rewarded with the Lions’ first and only tally.
Mueller’s development has helped the Lions in a number of ways. The most obvious of which is that it gives James O’Connor more options when deploying his starting XI. With the front three being composed of some combination of Mueller, Akindele, Dom Dwyer, and Nani, the head coach knows that all three starters will carry a goal-scoring threat.
While the Lions as a team still have an issue when it comes to scoring enough goals, Mueller’s ability to shoulder a heavier burden of the load will only help the team as he continues to grow and develop. It also gives the team some more tactical flexibility as the second year man can either play out on the wing, tuck in behind the striker, drop into the midfield, or even play as a striker himself.
In short, the man they call Cash has continued his development from where he left off after his rookie season. While the Lions ultimately lost Wednesday’s game, his play was just the latest in a series of examples that goes to show how valuable he’s becoming to this Orlando team.