With the upcoming United States Men’s National Team friendly against Trinidad & Tobago at Exploria Stadium less than a week away, Orlando City fans eagerly wait to see which of the four Lions on the roster will get on the field. The fact that Chris Mueller, Daryl Dike, Andres Perea, and Benji Michel all made Gregg Berhalter’s 25-man roster is impressive enough, but now the four Lions will hope their numbers are called to get on their home pitch in a national team shirt.
Both Berhalter and Mueller were among those made available to the media Monday afternoon via Zoom to discuss the January camp and the upcoming match against the Soca Warriors in Orlando. Berhalter gave his thoughts on what the three U-23 players — Perea, Michel, and Dike — showed him to get their shot at their first USMNT cap.
“I think they all have different qualities,” Berhalter said. “With Andres, he performed really well throughout the entire camp. Very stable in the defensive midfield position, able to really improve his body shape receiving balls, able to play forward. We think he did a really good job. With Chris and Benji and Daryl, there’s attacking threats with speed with Benji. I think timing of his runs with Chris, and then strength and good ability in the penalty box with Daryl. So, I think they all made an impact and we’re looking forward to seeing them perform against Trinidad.”
Mueller has one cap under his belt, which came last month against El Salvador. That experience wouldn’t ordinarily make someone the “veteran” of the group, but as the only one of the four Lions with senior USMNT experience, he fits the bill by default. With a better idea of what to expect from camp his second time around, Mueller has been able to enjoy it a bit more.
“Camp has been has been a lot of fun. It’s been great,” he said. “I think that we’re getting some really good work in — a lot of good team camaraderie going on. We’ve had some time to get to know each other and it’s been a blast. It’s been a lot of fun and I’m looking forward to continuing moving forward towards this game on Sunday.
“I think I’m just a little bit more comfortable now with the guys. I think that that’s a huge thing when you step into a new team and you know there’s a lot of new faces and you’re getting to know the guys that you’re playing along with. I think that right now I feel comfortable. I have built some really good relationships with guys on the team and that part’s been great. I think that when you have that level of comfort, it goes a long way. So I would say that that’s been my biggest difference for sure.”
I asked Mueller if having been the only one of the four to play in a match for the USMNT put him in a position to mentor the younger three players ahead of what could be their first cap with the national team.
“I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily a big-time mentor for these guys, not having been around for all too long but, you know, they’re all great players and they’re adapting quickly,” Mueller said. “They’re all doing so well and I’m so proud of each and each and every one of them.”
The 24-year-old weighed in on Perea’s continued improvement as a player, noting that the Colombian-American plays with the experience of someone much older than 20 years of age.
“I think he’s so interesting in the sense that he covers a lot of ground, he moves the ball very well — I think that these are all things that are obviously important to be as a player at a top level,” Mueller said. “But I think that for being someone so young, I think he plays well beyond his years. I think he plays with a lot of experience. It seems like he’s been out there for a while. He’s good with game management, he knows all those little nicks and the details of the game, and I think that that just adds on to his his ability as a player, so I think that his potential and his future is really, really bright.”
Mueller’s debut last month was an especially successful one, as the third-year Lion scored two goals, added an assist, and played a role in a couple of other goals as well in the U.S. win over El Salvador. While it’s unrealistic to expect a repeat of that — or for any of the other three Lions to make that kind of splash in their debut — Mueller said he’s continuing to raise the bar on his personal goals.
“As I had some time to sit back and reflect on what I want to now accomplish in 2021, I’m going to shoot even higher,” he said. “I just want to continue to improve, continue to strive every day, and not get too far ahead of myself. I know that this is a long process and I’m always playing the long game, so I’m just going to continue to focus on the day by day, win every moment that I can, and just continue to learn to be the best version of myself.”
Players don’t often get to play national team matches on their club’s home grounds and Mueller called Sunday “a unique opportunity” for the four Orlando City players on the roster.
“Playing in Exploria Stadium, it’s kind of ironic but it’s definitely a great opportunity and I’m sure that we’re all really excited for it,” he said.