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Chris Mueller’s Breakout Season Raises Questions about His Future Career Path

After a great 2020 season, what is Chris Mueller’s future in the City Beautiful?

Soccer: International Soccer-El Salvador at USA Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Mueller has become one of the best players in Orlando City’s relatively brief history in Major League Soccer. After being drafted sixth overall back in 2018, the “Money Badger” has risen from useful super-sub to a high level starter. Over the course of three seasons in Orlando, Mueller has put up 18 goals and 18 assists in 83 games of MLS action. He ranks among the top five in team history in appearances, goals, and assists.

After a breakout 2020 campaign when he had career highs in goals and assists, Mueller has even broken into the fringes of the U.S. Men’s National Team, with two goals and assist on his debut earlier this month. Mueller has become one of the top domestic players in MLS, but the question now stands: what does his future hold?

Orlando City picked up the option on the 24-year old winger’s contract for 2021, so he’ll most likely be a fixture this upcoming year, but beyond that, it’s hard to say.

More and more MLS teams are adopting the model of a “selling club,” moving on young players to bigger European clubs for hefty transfer sums. In recent years, rumors connecting young MLS players to the top of Europe have been omnipresent, and with the success of MLS academy players, including Weston McKennie and Alphonso Davies, more and more teams are looking into this market.

For a long time FC Dallas, and recently the Philadelphia Union, among other teams, are finding lots of success developing and then selling young players, but this mostly applies to really young prospects in the 16-21 range.

Mueller is too old to be considered a true prospect, if a team invests in him, they’re looking for a player to contribute now and in the future. Unfortunately for Mueller, I don’t know how many teams outside of MLS see him as a potential star. For what it’s worth, his Transfermarkt value has skyrocketed to $3.3 million, very good for MLS, but how many European teams would be willing to spend over five million on an MLS player?

Mueller seems to be in the same type of limbo as Jordan Morris of Seattle. Morris is a few years older so it’s not a perfect comparison, but he too could have European aspirations with an unknown market. Teams in the top five leagues of Europe don’t typically buy MLS players in their prime, though leagues in Scotland, Portugal, Belgium, the Netherlands, or Turkey might have interest.

While Morris and — to a lesser extent — Mueller are stars here, that doesn’t necessarily mean they project as stars in Europe. Success in one league doesn’t guarantee success in another, and while MLS is a much better league than many give it credit for, it’s hard to project how a player will transition into a new setting.

Best case scenario for Mueller in Europe is probably the low mid table teams in the bigger leagues — places like Hertha Berlin in Germany or Fulham in England — or perhaps a team in the countries mentioned above. Opportunities will likely present themselves, but the odds of Mueller playing top European soccer, especially straight from MLS, are very low.

That’s what the option for him could be abroad, but he’s still in MLS. From all accounts, he loves playing in Orlando and Orlando certainly loves him. Gregg Berhalter and the USMNT have taken notice even though he’s in MLS, so that wouldn’t necessarily affect the decision. If his chances in Europe remain that modest, would he really want to spurn the Lions? The bigger thing would be his personal aspirations and secondarily Orlando City’s finances.

The last thing I want to see is a player-club battle over a transfer or over money. We’ve seen it in MLS, even in Orlando with Cyle Larin, and we see it all across the world of soccer. When a player is so beloved by a club and its supporters the last thing you want to see is that relationship severed by contract or transfer disputes. If Mueller decides he wants to try to make it in Europe, the club shouldn’t try to hold him hostage, and if he wants to stay, then other monetary issues could get in the way.

If Mueller continues to play at this level, he will eventually command a Targeted Allocation Money or Designated Player level salary. Orlando could decide the transfer fee they get for him is a better investment than a hefty contract. However, if the player wants to stay, keeping Mueller, even on a DP contract, would be an excellent move for Orlando City, particularly if he continues to improve his game. After all, every team could use a Jordan Morris type.

All of this is conversation for the future, but it’s something worth thinking about. But for now, let’s cherish every second of our dynamic, hardworking Money Badger while he’s still here.