SANFORD, Fla. — Two names have repeatedly shined for Orlando City recently.
Chris Mueller and Tesho Akindele have delivered as goal-scoring options for the Lions throughout preseason training, a product of a strong on-the-field connection supplemented by a solid friendship.
Off the pitch, the two became fast friends during Orlando City’s camp at IMG Academy in Bradenton. Akindele is in his first season with Orlando City after he was acquired from FC Dallas in the offseason.
“I feel like off the field, we kind of have similar personalities,” Akindele said of Mueller. “We just kind of clicked, joking around together. And then on the field, we both are just passionate about the game. Again, going back to off the field, we both love just discussing the game.
“After the game, we’ll talk about what we thought we did well, where we thought we could have improved. Just constantly bouncing ideas back and forth off each other.”
Mueller was a bright spot as a rookie for Orlando City during a rough 2018 season, earning three goals and seven assists. Coach James O’Connor said the 22-year-old Wisconsin grad has gotten better. When asked about Mueller’s improvement during preseason training, O’Connor brought up Mueller’s strong on-the-field relationship with Akindele.
“He’s already got a great understanding with Tesho,” O’Connor said after Orlando City’s scrimmage against the Philadelphia Union on Feb. 12. He added Mueller set up Akindele during a Feb. 9 scrimmage between members of the team and Akindele returned the favor in the match against the Union.
“I’m really encouraged by the Tesho and Chris Mueller … I wouldn’t call it a partnership, but the understanding that they’re starting to develop, I think in the games that we’ve seen, the Louisville game, I think there’s a lot of positivity that’s coming from both of them.”
Plus, Akindele, who is entering his sixth year in MLS, said he’s taken on a bit of a mentor role with Mueller.
“Chris is really a special player, man,” Akindele said. “The way this guy can dribble the ball is unbelievable. I’m trying to just tell him to believe in himself, really. Just to believe that he can be one of the best players.
“I think a lot of times, young players, especially young American players, are kind of scared to be the dribbler guy. You know? They kind of want to defer that to someone else. I’m like, ‘Man, that’s you. You should be the dribbler guy. You should be the one creating chances, breaking defenses down.’
“So, I’m trying to just kind of coach him about when and where to dribble. I think he has the ability to be a super special player.”
Both Akindele and Mueller scored in Orlando City’s 2-1 win over NYCFC in the team’s first win of the Orlando City Invitational. Mueller also scored during the Lions’ scrimmage against Philadelphia.
“I like to play with Tesho,” Mueller said after the win. “He’s a great player. He’s got a great mind for the game. He finishes just about everything that comes off his foot, so, makes it easy kind of to slip him in and expect him to score.”
The duo’s connection was on full display during Mueller’s goal. Akindele fed Mueller the ball and then continued his run, giving Mueller a pass option.
“I got to give [Akindele] credit for the goal, because he dragged that defender with him away from me, essentially, with the ball,” Mueller said about his goal. “He wasn’t able to jump in front and try to force me to make a play because if he would have came even closer, I would have passed to Tesho that would have also been a 100 percent goal, which it was.”
Akindele said he and Mueller bonded due to their similar senses of humor.
“We just joke around a lot,” Akindele said. “That’s how I definitely bond with people, just joking around. Maybe throwing some jokes at him, he’ll throw some jokes back at me or whatever. That’s kind of how I bond with everybody. Chris, he probably has a similar sense of humor as I do. Has some of the same tastes as I do off the field, so we’ve clicked.”
The two had ample time to learn how to lob jokes at each other while at Bradenton. Akindele said they played the FIFA video game a lot while at IMG Academy.
“I’m better at FIFA,” Akindele said without hesitation. “He likes the skill moves, though. He’s all about skill moves. He comes out strong, looking good, but then nah, he’s not clutch.”