When five-year-old Graham Chimato graduated from Pre-K in May, his school asked each student to decorate a star with whatever they wanted to be when they grew up. Most kids wrote professions, such as lawyer or doctor. Graham wrote a name instead — Chris Mueller.
When the MLS All-Star Game rolled around two months later, Graham’s father, Matthew, took him to Mueller’s signing event. Graham was too shy to approach Mueller, but his father nudged him to the front of the line, telling the forward about the star his son decorated for graduation.
For a moment, Mueller admitted he was stunned, moved by the adoration from the young fan. He signed Graham’s jersey, then crouched down to offer him a one-on-one message.
“You can do anything you want as long as you work hard at it,” Matthew Chimato recalled Mueller telling his son.
Chimato still gets a little choked up recalling the story.
“Players come and go, but nobody really takes the time like Chris,” Chimato said. “There’s something about him. He’s a humble kid and you can tell he remembers where he came from. He was just a kid the same as my son, looking up to somebody else, and he remembers that and takes the time to be that person that you want your son to look up to.”
To outsiders, Mueller could easily be confused for a homegrown player. The forward was born in Illinois, attended college in Wisconsin and didn’t have any Florida roots until he was drafted by Orlando City in 2018. But in less than two years, Mueller — nicknamed “Cash Money” by supporters — has woven himself into the fabric of Orlando City.
It’s a simple relationship. Mueller loves the fans and they love him right back, wholeheartedly and enthusiastically.
“We haven’t gotten necessarily what we’ve wanted this year, we haven’t gotten to the playoffs yet, but we have one of the best fan bases in the league,” Mueller said. “When you see that kind of support and how much they love the team, it makes it easy to give back.”
At first, Mueller’s relationship with Orlando City fans could be chalked up to rookie energy, the bright-eyed enthusiasm that young players always bring to their first team. But as he continues during his sophomore season, Mueller has made a pointed effort to strengthen his relationship with supporters.
The relationship between athletes and fans is always fleeting — an Instagram comment, a picture after a game, a quick conversation outside the stadium. But Mueller is known for making those moments count.
That means greeting fans after every game, win or lose. It also means chatting with them on Instagram and recording special messages for specific people. Mueller also happily signs any merchandise fans bring, although he did hesitate once when Jake Beaver held up his baby at a meet-and-greet before laughing and autographing his onesie.
When Jake Washington traveled to Denver to see the team play the Colorado Rapids, Mueller recognized him from the Wall and social media. He sought the fan out after the game and gave him the jersey off his back. That jersey is now framed and hangs in Washington’s room, celebrating one of his favorite memories as an Orlando City fan.
Interactions like that are the reason Mueller, despite only being in his second season with the club, already has an influence that stretches beyond Orlando. Blake Trerife teaches special education classes and coaches soccer in Le Roy, New York, and often travels up and down the coast to catch Orlando City matches.
When he attended the team’s preseason tournament, Trerife was impressed by the way Mueller worked his way through a gaggle of excited fans, stopping to sign every jersey and take selfies on every phone thrust in his direction. It’s the type of energy he hopes to pass along to his students and athletes back in New York.
“When he’s on the field, he kind of shines,” Trerife said. “He gives his all and a little bit more. It makes me think more about what I can do for my students, that maybe my all isn’t all that I can give.”
More than an hour after the final whistle blew during the Lions’ loss to Atlanta on Friday, Chris Mueller left Exploria Stadium for the final part of his game-day routine — greeting fans who had waited to greet him on his way to his car.
He walked down the line slowly, pausing to talk through the game with some fans and waving to others who he recognized from the last game. Win or lose, fans know they can depend on Mueller to make time for them.
Mueller says he draws the same joy from the support he sees from fans, even when the team isn’t delivering results on the field.
After one game, a fan who served in the military approached Mueller and handed him an American flag. In the military, a flag is a symbol of commitment. Mueller said the fan told him the forward’s dedication to Orlando City matched his unit’s dedication in Afghanistan.
Mueller kept the flag, displaying it at home as a reminder of the support the team enjoys every time the Lions take the pitch.
“For me personally, the way the fans have embraced me since I’ve gotten to Orlando, it’s nothing just to go and say, ‘Hi’ and give them some of my time,” Mueller said. “I’m really grateful for them. They deserve every second I can give.”