Chris Mueller’s pre-match ritual is relatively simple.
Mueller, like he does with most things, approaches the minutes before a match starts with a level head. He’ll read a bit the day of a match, but it’s mostly a normal day.
“Honestly, I try not to think too much about the game until I get out there, really,” he told Pro Soccer USA. “I don’t want to overthink anything and get too hyped or too much in my own head thinking about what I want to do.”
That’s the key to Mueller’s success. It’s what is making him a star for the Lions at 22 years old. He’s methodical. Measured. He keeps his head down. That’s been his approach since he was a child.
“In school, his papers were about all the coaches at the club he grew up at,” said Leanne Mueller-Gonzalez, Mueller’s mother. “It hasn’t changed in Chris to this day. We go to visit Chris, we’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re so happy to see you; let’s go for a walk.’ And it’s like, ‘No, no, no, I can’t get my legs tired.’”
It is the mentality Mueller has carried since before he won a 3-v-3 soccer tournament in 2006 at Disney’s Wide World of Sports. The trophy from that tournament is still in his room in his childhood home in Chicago.
Thinking back to Mueller’s youth soccer days, his mother, who managed his Chicago-based youth team, Sockers FC, said, “We never had to do anything. He always had his uniform ready. His clothes were always ready. His backpack was always packed.”
The approach is clearly working. Mueller is in his second season with Orlando City and the buzz surrounding the No. 6 overall pick in 2018’s MLS SuperDraft rivals the hype that surrounds star designated players like Nani and Dom Dwyer. Fans wait after matches for photos with Mueller. Reporters have taken notice of his drive and ability on the ball.
— Christopher Mueller (@cmueller1662) June 21, 2019
And Mueller, through everything, has the same goal as when he first arrived in Central Florida. He just wants to win. It doesn’t matter if he starts or comes off the bench (a frequent occurrence, much to the chagrin of some Orlando City supporters). It doesn’t matter if he’s wearing No. 9 or No. 17 — the number he gave to Nani after wearing it his rookie season.
“I think that if the team is successful, everyone’s individual goals, across the whole team, everything will bring success for each guy,” Mueller said.
“Everyone has personal goals, whether it’s defenders having shutouts or whether it’s attackers scoring goals and getting assists, being productive. I think that all those things will fall into place if the whole team is successful and wins games because everybody doing their job is what’s going to end up leading to accomplishing those goals.”
Building a player like Mueller, one who approaches each day as methodically as he does, took time.
Mueller spent four seasons at Wisconsin before reaching the pros. Some question the value of the American college system for professional soccer players, but Mueller has been adamant spending four years in college shaped him into the player he is today.
It’s probably because he had a tough coach. Wisconsin boss John Trask said he never let up on Mueller because he was determined to see the young star thrive.
That meant occasionally being hard on his best player.
“He was always a very gifted player, but I think he was more concerned with what I call ‘the game within the game,’” Trask said. “Making sure that everybody on the other team knew he was a good player. Maybe being happy to get a nutmeg at midfield on a guy rather than realizing what was eventually going to make him or break him as a player is he’s an attacking player. It’s about goals and assists.”
Trask, who was an assistant coach with FC Dallas, D.C. United and the Miami Fusion before taking over at Wisconsin, said he knew what it would take to get Mueller to the professional level. So he pushed him. And he pushed. He pushed more than he would with a typical college player because, as he says, he knew Mueller’s upside.
“I think most coaches would say this,” Trask said. “When you deal with a player like [Mueller] at the college level, there’s a little bit of a love-hate relationship that goes into it — 90% love, but there were days where Chris and I battled psychologically, back and forth. It made our relationship stronger. He knew I was always coming from a place of unconditional love, but I was tough on him. I would call him out in a way that a lot of younger players, it might not be fair to them, but I knew Chris could handle it.”
Trask added he had the support of Mueller’s parents and youth coaches, which made a huge difference in his ability to deliver his message.
“Yeah, I’m being tough on you because you’re one of the special ones, Chris,” Trask said.
Trask, who said he talks to Mueller roughly once every couple of weeks, said he wouldn’t allow Mueller to become a “prima donna” in college.
“He’ll do a good job in a 3-5-2,” Trask said. “He’ll do a good job in a 4-4-2. He’ll do a good job in a 4-3-3. Right or left sided or even if they decide to play him centrally. I think we helped him in that process as well. Making him realize that as a young American attacker, you can’t be standing there with your hands in the air going, ‘Why didn’t I get the ball?’”
Mueller finished his senior season as the college assist king with 20 assists — a Big Ten record.
Mueller said he’s grateful for Trask’s guidance.
“He was really influential in where I am right now,” Mueller said. “I think him being tough on me just held me to a higher standard and it made me go about my trainings, go about my games, go about what I do in my game — take it way more seriously. Pay attention to every detail and take ownership when things weren’t going well and take accountability even sometimes it may not be my fault, but to always be the guy that people might need to look to.
“I think that in that sense, he helped me just mature so much from a mental standpoint and just a discipline standpoint. He really got me shaped for the pros.”
Open to coaching
The word that’s followed Mueller around since his first preseason is “coachable.”
“[Mueller] called me after [former City coach] Jason Kreis has drafted him and I said, ‘How’s it going with Jason?’” Trask said. “He said, ‘He hasn’t said a word to me all of preseason.’ I said, ‘Exactly. Chris, remember there were times I didn’t say a word to you for a week and a half. I just let you get on with your work.’
“Hardening him up to the reality of it all. That this isn’t fourth-grade soccer with your coach going, ‘Great job, Chris. Great job, Chris. Great job, Chris.’ That’s not how it works at that level. You’ve got to have some thicker skin.”
— Christopher Mueller (@cmueller1662) May 20, 2019
He’s earned the respect of current Orlando City coach James O’Connor, a coach known for his intensity and blunt delivery of criticism.
“His coach-ability is something that is probably one of the most impressive things,” O’Connor said about Mueller. “Because when you say it to him, he’s very intentional about trying to get better. He’s serious. In the offseason, he was working really, really hard where he’s from. He had a couple of people who he was training with speak to us about his intensity in the offseason. He deserves everything that he’s getting so far. He’s a great young man.”
Mueller-Gonzalez said her son is someone who looks for every edge to get better. He records Premier League matches (he’s a Chelsea supporter). He’s breaking down film on his own before team sessions. As she puts it, he “eats, sleeps and breathes it” and always has.
“He’s coachable because he really wants to get better that badly. He’s willing to listen to anything and apply it. Just craving knowledge to get better,” Mueller-Gonzalez said.
“It’s because it’s innate. It’s not because he’s trying to be that. That’s just how he is. You can teach skill. You can teach technique. But you can’t teach someone that kind of hunger. When he stays after to talk to fans, I think it’s just because he doesn’t want to leave the field.”
On a rain-soaked Saturday night in April, with Orlando City trailing 3-2 to the Colorado Rapids, fans who stayed after a lengthy weather delay began a chant.
“We want Mueller!” Clap, clap, clap-clap-clap. “We want Mueller!”
In the 80th minute, he entered the match. He delivered the match-tying goal in the 81st minute and Orlando City would go on to win 4-3, giving fans a home victory for the first time during the 2019 season.
The level of fan support has been surreal, Mueller said. #CashSZN is common among Orlando City fans on Twitter, and he’s embraced the nickname “Cash” Mueller.
“It’s been amazing,” Mueller said. “Orlando’s been so good to me and I already feel like it is home and I love this city. I love the fans and I really appreciate how they’ve embraced since I’ve come here. I’m just excited to move forward and I hope that we can keep winning for them. They’re one of the best fan bases in the league, for sure.”
The fan support began last season when Mueller scored three goals in three matches, including what holds up as the fastest goal in Orlando City history during a 3-2 victory over the San Jose Earthquakes. The goals dropped off after that performance. The dedication didn’t. The fans saw Mueller’s drive through the worst season in Orlando City’s MLS history and appreciated him for it.
Mueller-Gonzalez said watching Mueller interact with fans is a source of pride for her.
“He’s 100%,” she said. “What they see is truly who Chris is. He’s a dedicated, loyal, hardworking, godly man. It humbles me as a mom when I see him give back that grace.”
Those closest Mueller get to see a different side of the dedicated player. A key component of Mueller’s success has been a home life that includes his longtime girlfriend, 22-year-old Alyssa Gazzano.
She said on top of Mueller’s total dedication to soccer, he’s a goofy individual who loves a good joke. He also draws strength from his Christian faith — something important to both of them.
“Now, being in Orlando and getting acclimated with my girlfriend. … It’s just like I’m here and I’ve settled into my new home,” Mueller said. “Obviously, the fans have welcomed me amazingly and I couldn’t ask for anything more in that sense.”
Mueller met Gazzano met while in middle school, they started dating in high school, toughed it out through long distance when Mueller went to college at Wisconsin and Gazzano went to Marquette, and now live together in Orlando.
The two also have a dog, a rescue named Fazo.
Gazzano said Mueller’s mental approach to soccer has evolved. For instance, while at home, Mueller reads books about soccer, she said.
“Everything he does in his daily life — the way he eats, the physical activity, he stretches at home all the time,” Gazzano said. “He’s always doing stuff now related to soccer. He did it in college when his career kind of spiked in college, but now he’s taken it to a whole new level.”
It’s on a different scale, but things haven’t changed too much from when Mueller, the middle child of three sons, was younger.
“The kids that he hung around with, none of them were from school,” Mueller-Gonzalez said. “They were always from the soccer team. Most of the time, it was spending the night at our house or someone else’s house. Every single one of those boys that he clicked with, they had nets in their backyard. They literally spent every waking minute playing soccer in some way.”
Mueller credits Gazzano for keeping him grounded as his profile has risen. That’s a task Gazzano said she’s proud to take on.
“Above anything in the world, relationships matter,” she said. “Your family and the people who have supported you up to this point. I always try to remind him to never let all the outside noise get in the way of who he is as a person.
“If he never played soccer again in his life, he would still be Chris Mueller.”
Scratching the surface
On the field, Mueller still wants to grow. He has his sights set on the U.S. men’s national team. He doesn’t want to a repeat of his rookie season, during which he scored goals in three consecutive matches early on and then didn’t score again for the rest of the season.
His teammates have seen progress. Even the players who haven’t been with Orlando City that long are noticing. Before the match against Colorado earlier this season, star winger Nani said he told Mueller, “You will be the key.”
“We see speed,” the former Manchester United winger said of Mueller. “We see skills. We see the desire to beat the players for a goal, to create chances for the team. This is the kind of player we need at the front, [one] with the courage to dribble, to create chances, to score goals, to shoot. He’s been doing great.
“Obviously, he’s a young player. He can do much better in the future. He’s still learning a lot. But like I said before, he’s a player who has a big chance to show his qualities in this league and then, maybe in the future, to reach a different level.”
Mueller just wants to keep helping the team. Since he debuted with the Lions in 2018, when he’s scored a goal, Orlando City is 4-1-1.
It backs up his belief when the team is winning, individual achievements fall into place.
“The success of the team will kind of bring that out and show that the guys who are playing on the team are doing their jobs properly and playing well if the team is winning,” Mueller said.