KISSIMMEE, Fla. — A season or two after feeling like the new kids in town, Orlando City forwards Tesho Akindele and Chris Mueller are now helping to lead a Lions team filled with new and young faces.
“I’m getting a little bit older, I feel like more of a veteran, so I feel that I can kind of pass wisdom down to people,” Akindele said. “[I’m] just kind of using my age and experience as well as my goal-scoring ability to have an affect.”
Mueller described his offseason as “pretty much solo dolo” as the remaining Lions roster scattered to travel and visit family members. Although he checked in with teammates such as Dom Dwyer periodically, most of the time was spent recovering and recharging after a dismal end to the 2019 season.
Looking back at the winless final eight games of last year, Mueller is content to leave the final stretch of the season in 2019 behind him.
“I don’t know how much we want to build from in those last eight games, honestly,” Mueller said. “I think that when you’re brutally honest and you look at those last eight games, I don’t think that the performances were good enough. I didn’t get as much playing time in those games as I would have liked either, so I mean looking back on those, I guess the best way we can is just learn from not coming up with the performances that we needed at crucial times.”
Although the 2019 season left a bitter taste in the returning players’ mouths, they are using that frustration to sharpen themselves as they enter 2020.
Akindele said the additions the front office made in the offseason have only bolstered the roster; but he felt last year’s team fielded a similarly strong lineup. In order to succeed, the forward said the Lions must embrace a mentality shift.
“Last season, I thought we had a really good team and we played really well through a lot of games and then we would give up a goal right at the end or even just start the game giving up a goal and then dominate the rest,” Akindele said. “[We need to be] more focused and have a tougher mentality in the critical moments.”
With a new coach and a new training facility, Mueller admitted he felt somewhat new himself on the first day of training. But he and the other players returning from the 2019 roster are taking it upon themselves to set expectations.
To Mueller, this is a year for “making history.”
“I don’t think that our long-term goal is to make the playoffs because I think that aiming for the playoffs is just selling ourselves short from the beginning,” Mueller said. “I think our aim needs to be on bringing a trophy back to this city.”
Bilingual players bridge gap
The process of building team unity will come with a new challenge this year — a significant language barrier. More than half of the players added to this year’s roster are native Spanish or Portuguese speakers. In fact, the only native English speakers came through the draft or academy systems.
As players such as keeper Pedro Gallese and midfielder Andrés Perea adjust to a new coach, team and culture, bilingual players such as Mueller hope to help their teammates acclimate.
“Being able to talk to both groups of guys and communicate and translate when I need to, I think that’s been very important,” Mueller said. “It’s not necessary, you need to find a way to get the job done regardless, but I think that in terms of getting to know your teammates and communicating with each other on the field, I think it’s really valuable when you know their native language.”
It’s difficult for any player to compete in soccer in America without picking up bits of Spanish and Portuguese — Akindele, for instance, promised his Spanish is “muy bueno.” That was evident throughout the team’s first two days of training. Pareja and his staff barked out orders in all three languages and the players responded in kind.
To Mueller, that connection goes beyond the tactics of the game. As the team’s newest players integrate into the roster, he said utilizing both languages will help new additions to welcome.
“I think it helps the foreign guys feel a little bit more comfortable when they see some of the guys who are from this country go out of their way and try and communicate, try and make them feel welcome, try and get to know them,” Mueller said. “I think that all that stuff is really important in a team and I think that it will help us bond quicker and get to know each other better, which ultimately will make us a better team.”