Chris Mueller has received so much solid advice during his first MLS preseason, he has trouble singling out just one piece as the best.
For him, it’s been a pleasant surprise.
The 21-year-old rookie midfielder-turned-striker out of Wisconsin came into the preseason with a “just put my head down and work” mentality and it’s been noted – by his coach and by his teammates.
“I honestly wasn’t sure if I was going to get a lot of good advice,” Mueller said. “I’ve heard about coming in, being a rookie, that you’d have to do a lot of the work a lot of the older guys don’t want to do. They’ve all just been really making the locker room feel like a team culture.
“I’ve just had a really good experience.”
Mueller was selected with the sixth pick in the 2018 MLS SuperDraft after an impressive MLS Scouting Combine performance in Orlando. He was the fastest in the 5-10-5 agility test and hasn’t let up all preseason.
During three training scrimmages against MLS competition, Mueller has four goals. He scored twice against Minnesota United FC and once against both the Philadelphia Union and Real Salt Lake.
Lions coach Jason Kreis smiled when he was asked if Mueller reminds him of a younger version of himself. The two are similar in stature – Kreis is 5-foot-8 and Mueller is 5-foot-9 – and Kreis put together a stellar MLS playing career with the Dallas Burn and Real Salt Lake.
“Yeah,” Kries said. “Yeah, he does.”
He added, “I couldn’t be happier with what he’s all about. I knew from the moment I spoke to him at the Combine that he reminded me of me. He has a bit of a chip on his shoulder. I think he has a feel that he has a lot of people to prove wrong and I think that’s a terrific quality to have.”
With the Badgers, Mueller was more of a creative midfielder. He led the NCAA in assists as a senior last season with 20 and scored nine goals in 21 starts, helping Wisconsin reach the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament. So far, he’s playing a bit higher than he’s used to, but he’s making a positive impact for the Lions.
Some key pieces of what’ll be Orlando City’s attack during the regular season have missed time due to injuries this preseason and Mueller is taking advantage of extra minutes, working to cement his place as a first-team player.
“They’ve been playing me higher up the field, which I don’t mind,” he said. “I played it a lot in college, as well as before college, so I have a good feeling for it.
“When you’ve got Sacha Kljestan in the midfield and guys like Josué [Colmán] and Justin [Meram] who are creating things on the ball, scoring goals … Dom [Dwyer] is doing that as well. I can do that, too.”
Kljestan has offered the rookie advice, Mueller said, though many of his other teammates have also been willing to give some helpful tips during the preseason.
“As a striker, the most important thing is goals,” Kljestan said after the team’s scrimmage against Philadelphia.
“That part’s been great. He’s working hard off the ball to help the team keep the ball and also try to win it back. As a rookie, you never know how much he’s going to play; I would say a very good preseason so far.”
Mueller said he’s always looking to score more and win more. He said the intensity in MLS has been much higher compared to college competition.
“We’re all pushing each other. I’m just trying to come in and get my feet wet a little bit. I’ve said it multiple times, you know, just trying to get a feel for ourselves. The guys have all been really helpful. It’s easier to play when you’ve got such good teammates. They’re all being helpful.”
So far, Mueller’s transition to MLS has been smooth because he’s putting in the effort to make it so. Kreis has said multiple times throughout the preseason that Mueller’s willingness to run has set him apart.
“A lot of it through pure grit,” Kreis said.
“A lot of it through this mentality that he has that there’s no back-down. He’s willing to do whatever it takes. A terrific engine on him, can run, run, run all the time and fight. Technically and tactically he’s a very gifted player, as well. So you add all that up and it lends itself to a short transition.”