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Orlando City’s Return on Investment for Chris Mueller Improves

According to reports by Paul Tenorio of The Athletic, the Lions ended up getting decent compensation for a player who left on a free transfer.

MLS: Orlando City SC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

What started out as a failure to take full advantage of a valuable club asset has turned out better than expected. Orlando City wasn’t able to re-sign winger Chris Mueller or secure a transfer deal to move him before losing its leverage. As a result, Mueller left on a free transfer to Hibernian FC at the end of last season — after being held in Orlando despite his wishes to move on and join his new team as soon as possible.

That didn’t work out for anyone involved. While the club was perfectly within its rights to enforce its existing contract with Mueller rather than letting him go, having an unhappy player in the ranks generally doesn’t work well. So it was with Mueller, whose form slumped, which was bad for both player and club. While I have no doubt the energetic winger never stopped trying to do his best while in an Orlando shirt, things like that have a way of seeping into the brain and affecting performance.

Mueller’s stay in Scotland lasted only a matter of months. The coach who wanted him, Jack Ross, was let go back in early December. His next coach with Hibs, Shaun Maloney, was just fired recently. Per Soccerway, Mueller made just 11 appearances (five starts) in the Scottish Premier League season and didn’t score a goal. He notched one goal for Hibs in four Scottish Cup appearances.

Now he’s returning to Major League Soccer, as confirmed by Hibernian FC (transfer details not disclosed), but not as a Lion.

“Chris has worked extremely hard in training since he arrived but has found it difficult to adapt to the pace and physicality of the Scottish Premiership, which has severely limited his game time. Ultimately, he wants to play football regularly and when the opportunity came about for him to play for his home-town side, it was something he didn’t want to turn down and we were happy to work with all parties to make this happen.

“For us, it was vital that this deal made complete sense for the Club and alongside this, it has also freed up a significant amount financially that the incoming manager will be able to use to mould the squad in their way. “We thank Chris for all his efforts during his time with us and wish him all the best at Chicago Fire.”

[Hang on, I need a minute to absorb that line about struggling with the pace of the SPL. The physicality? Sure, but the pace? I’m not exactly seeing 11 Ruans vs. 11 Ruans when I watch SPL matches but I’m generally seeing Celtic or Rangers, so maybe those are the slow teams? OK, carry on.]

Paul Tenorio of The Athletic reported that Orlando City would get something out of the 25-year-old’s transfer to the Chicago Fire. Per Tenorio’s source, Orlando will receive $500,000 in General Allocation Money (GAM) — $250K in 2022 and $250K in 2023 — the Fire’s 2023 first-round SuperDraft pick, and discovery rights to an unnamed player. That GAM total could also increase by another $150,000, depending on performance metrics. Orlando will also keep a small sell-on percentage.

That’s up to $650,000 in GAM, a first-round pick, the discovery rights to an unnamed player on Chicago’s Discovery List, and potentially more money from a future sale. Even if the incentives aren’t met for the additional $15,000 in GAM, that’s a hell of a piece of business for Orlando if that turns out to be the official haul. After all, Mueller was gone for nothing just months ago.

And bear in mind this is a player the Lions drafted out of college, so there wasn’t any initial fee for his services other than his first pro contract.

This is the kind of return Orlando could have expected after Mueller’s breakout 2020 season. The Schaumberg, IL, native had 17 direct goal contributions (10 goals, seven assists) in 22 matches (17 starts) in Orlando’s first MLS playoff season. His brilliant season put him on the radar of USMNT Head Coach Gregg Berhalter and Mueller made a big impact in his international debut with the U.S. senior team. He scored twice and added an assist in a 6-0 rout of El Salvador on Dec. 9, 2020, but he also figured prominently in some of the other goals which he didn’t score or set up directly that night.

The sky seemed to be the limit for Mueller. But then came the struggles of the last year and a half. His numbers returned to his rookie season level in 2021 with Orlando City, with just three goals and six assists in 29 games (18 starts). He struggled to beat opponents on the dribble or with a pass and was far less clinical shooting the ball. Things didn’t seem to get any better after his arrival at Hibs.

Now he returns to the league where his professional career began, playing for his hometown MLS team. The Fire are hoping he can provide the same energy and positivity he brought to Orlando City in his four seasons in purple, while at the same time returning to the form he showed in 2020. Will that year turn out to be an outlier in his career? So far it has been one. Mueller’s goal total from 2018, 2019, and 2021 combined is one more than the 10 he had in 2020 alone. That 2020 season is the only time he’s surpassed five goals in a season, reaching double digits.

Chicago will be quite happy with parting with what Tenorio reported if Mueller can get back to 17 goal contributions per season. Meanwhile, Orlando got good value for him even if he does return to those numbers. The Lions have proven to be shrewd with first-round draft picks through the club’s history, they’ll get nice infusions of GAM in back-to-back seasons, and who even knows which player’s discovery rights they now hold?

And if Mueller doesn’t return to his 2020 form, and he continues to provide three to five goals and half a dozen assists to Chicago per year, Orlando will have made out well above what it should receive for a player of that level.

The Lions could have certainly used another winger and Mueller would have been a good fit. Benji Michel has been inconsistent and Silvester van der Water not only couldn’t get on the field much before, but he now seems to have picked up a significant injury as of last weekend, so Orlando is a bit thin on the wings. The long-reported Gaston Gonzalez deal won’t help this season if it becomes official, because the young Argentine has injured his knee. While the Lions could have used Mueller’s energy and relentless defensive hustle — even if he didn’t return to filling the net — there is likely too much bad blood at the way his departure was protracted for him to have realistically returned to Orlando.

That’s not ideal, but Orlando City will still be quite satisfied with the haul Tenorio reported. The Lions have an opportunity to bring in a winger and can even do it at the Designated Player level if the front office wants, because Mauricio Pereyra’s salary can be bought down below the DP threshold. Whether the team goes that route or tries to weather the storm until the off-season remains to be seen.

Orlando is in a good spot at the moment, but injuries and yellow cards are mounting and the club is spending most of this month on the road. Hopefully the return on Mueller will help City fill some holes, because a successful season is still very much on the table at this point.