The United States Men’s National Team opened its 2021 Gold Cup campaign Sunday night with a slightly underwhelming 1-0 victory over Haiti. Despite the three points against a relatively good opponent, questions were raised about the MLS-heavy team’s performance. A lot of the criticism from the ever-unpleased horde that is USMNT Twitter was in bad faith, but one area that received the most legitimate critique was the play of the team’s wingers.
The Colorado Rapids’ Jonathan Lewis and D.C. United’s Paul Arriola, two recurring figures of the Gregg Berhalter era, received the start in Kansas City, but to say the duo underwhelmed would be an understatement. Lewis received overwhelming negative reviews for his performance, including MLSSoccer.com’s Matt Doyle, who described Lewis as, “very, very poor,” and “a ball-stopper at left wing.” Yikes. It’s hard to say those criticisms are unfounded though, as the winger did as little as anyone on the field, with no key passes, completed dribbles, or real impact at all. Arriola was unfortunately subbed off early in the first half, but wasn’t particularly dynamic in just under 15 minutes of action, either. His replacement, Nicholas Gioacchini, got into plenty of good spots but missed two big chances.
With these performances, and a serious lack of depth at the position in this group, I have to ask, why isn’t Chris Mueller in this group? Obviously there’s some bias here, as I’m an Orlando City fan and this is an Orlando City website, but even taking that out of the equation, not having the Money Badger with this squad is a questionable decision at best.
Plenty of people have made the claim that “Chris Mueller has fallen off the face of the planet this season,” but that’s far from the truth. It’s true he’s not as consistently fantastic as he was most of 2020, but Mueller’s having a fine MLS season. He gets into good spots, can find a pass, and has been increasingly goal dangerous in recent weeks. On the season he has two goals and four assists in 676 minutes of gametime. That’s not Best XI level, but it’s also not bad — certainly not evaporate-from-the-national-team bad.
Looking at goals and assists per 90 minutes, Mueller sits at 0.79 — higher than both Arriola (0.45) and Lewis (0.24). Even looking outside of this group, it’s roughly the same as Canadian forward Tajon Buchanan (0.81), who most people who follow MLS would say is having a breakout season. I realize that numbers aren’t everything, and Mueller has obviously had major struggles at times this year, but to say one player is an emerging star while the other is a massive regression seems ludicrous.
Beyond the fact that Mueller has clearly produced well enough to earn a call-up, he’s a perfect systematic fit. In Berhalter’s ideal setup, the two wingers will play inside into the half spaces, functioning as creative forwards rather than out-and-out wingers. Arriola and Lewis are both at their best when they’re running to the endline and whipping in crosses — not exactly the “half-space merchants” Berhalter is looking for. Mueller, on the other hand, thrives as a pocket winger. He loves cutting inside, driving the ball into dangerous areas, and playing quick combinations.
This squad is a poor man’s version of the USMNT, and Mueller is the ideal player to be a poor man’s Christian Pulisic. Obviously I’m not saying Mueller is anywhere near Pulisic’s level, but he’s a tactically similar player for Berhalter’s team. Few other Americans in all of MLS really fit the winger profile as perfectly as Mueller does, yet he was left out in the cold for two Berhalter favorites. I hate being negative as a means to build other players up, but frankly there’s no reason Lewis should be involved with the national team at this point in his career. A super-sub for the Rapids who has never produced consistently at any point in his career is not a player who should get game time for the USMNT, even with the second team.
This Gold Cup is not particularly important for the national team program, and even with a great tournament Mueller would likely be no higher than fifth on the winger depth chart for World Cup qualifying, but to not give an opportunity to someone who was fantastic last season, good this year, and impressive in limited national team experience is baffling to me.