Orlando City rookie Chris Mueller has seen a career’s worth of highs and lows during his first MLS season.
He started Orlando City’s first match of the season. He scored a goal in three consecutive games early on, when Orlando City was riding a club-record six-match winning streak. Then he experienced the Lions’ tumble from their hot start, into a nine-match losing streak — another club record.
A coaching change came in June. A player asked to be traded. And, most recently, Orlando City turned in a woeful performance against the Chicago Fire that led a national broadcaster to say the Lions have quit on the season.
Mueller, a player consistently lauded by coaches and fans for his effort, said it hasn’t been easy to look on the bright side with Orlando City (7-18-3, 24 points) sitting at the bottom of the Eastern Conference table.
“Obviously, a little bit of it is encouraging, here and there,” Mueller said about fan support. “It’s tough, when you’re in the midst of a tough season, to try and point some of that stuff out. You’ve got to just try and come in and just focus on yourself at this point. In your personal care, you’ve got to try to stay positive.
“It’s been a struggle for the team this year. A lot of things haven’t gone our way. In hindsight [fan support] is encouraging, for sure. I’m glad people see me as a hard worker. I see it as just doing my job, trying to give everything I can for the team and the club.”
The 22-year-old winger has played in 27 MLS matches (19 starts) this season. He has three goals – and hasn’t found the back of the net since scoring the quickest goal in Orlando City history on April 21 – to go with six assists in league play. In fact, it’s been a while (four games) since he took a shot.
And no, Mueller doesn’t believe he’s hit any kind of “rookie wall.” He said he did notice a dip in his performance in the middle of the season when he was dealing with the “mental grind” of a long pro season for the first time, but he’s ready to push through the final six matches of the season.
“You learn more about each other when things aren’t going well,” Mueller said. “It’s easy to be super happy and doing all the right things when things are going right. It’s a true test of your character and who you are as a player and a person, how you can respond to this sort of adversity.”
Orlando City gets its next chance to earn an elusive win when it plays the Houston Dynamo at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday at Orlando City Stadium.
“It’s been tough,” Mueller said. “Not just on me, but the team as a whole. We’ve just struggled, in a sense. Finding our chemistry and just a lot of things haven’t gone our way, bounces of the ball, whatever it may be, referee calls. It’s just kind of added up to just a lot. It’s just a lot to take on emotionally and mentally.
“But you know what? I still feel like I’ve produced some good moments, even though they’re not coming in the goals. I’m getting more confident every day, which is a good thing in the midst of all this. I feel like I’m still improving and just starting to learn the game more. It’s still my first year.
“When you get off to a hot start like that and the kind of ease of, it messes with your confidence a little bit. I struggled with that a little bit. But like I said, I’m just looking to improve every day.”
Mueller didn’t expect such a high-octane roller coaster of a season when he was drafted sixth overall.
“I couldn’t have written this script, just in how many ups and downs and things [that] have changed, but I guess it’s just a big slap and a welcome to the world of football, you know?” Mueller said. “This is kind of what we signed up for and this is just the nature of the business.”
He said his personal life has helped with the professional strife.
“I am a lot of ‘all-soccer,'” Mueller said with a smile.
“But, also, I live with my girlfriend and I think that is a big help, just in the sense that it gives you someone to talk to so you’re not running through your thoughts in your mind by yourself all the time or always thinking about soccer.
“Getting that little bit of an escape where you are comfortable at your house and you have good relationships with your parents or whoever off the field, I think all that little stuff adds up. It helps and keeps you sane when sometimes you may be thinking negatively and they bring you back on track to thinking positively.”
Mueller still has high ambitions. He wants to get a call-up to the U.S. men’s national team, which has gone with younger rosters under interim coach Dave Sarachan. He’s kept a close eye on the rosters and the games when he’s been able to watch.
“I’ve watched a lot of the recent games, especially since the rosters have been so young – I mean, I’m sure I’d be watching them anyway,” he said. “It’s always interesting to see. That’s obviously something that I aspire to do one day. Hopefully, I’ll get a call-up at some point.”
He’s not sitting around waiting for the phone to ring, however.
“At this point, I’m just focused on the day-to-day process,” Mueller said. “I love every minute of it, so it doesn’t seem like it’s taking a long time. I’m just doing what I love to do and we’ll just see where the pieces fall in the end.”