Voices: Sam Jones

How Chris Mueller made himself into a star for Orlando City SC | J. Sam Jones

Chris Mueller - Orlando City - celebrate goal in rain

It's called a “Victory Hour.”

You’re going to be waking up at 5 am every morning. And then you’ll of course follow the 20/20/20 formula. Your Victory Hour includes 20 minutes of intense exercise, 20 minutes of deep reflection and 20 minutes of an activity that encourages personal growth. Do that for a few weeks and you’ll be on your way towards being Orlando City SC attacker Chris Mueller

Over the last few weeks Mueller's book club — called Be The Best has been reading “The 5 am Club.” Which means Mueller and anyone else in the club probably got up earlier than you today.  

Even if you’re skeptical of the wake-up time, you couldn’t blame anyone for following along with the habits of Mueller. He’s gotten results this year. In ten starts this season, Mueller has scored seven times and dished out five assists as a key character in Orlando’s storybook turnaround, which they'll look to continue on Saturday against the New York Red Bulls on national TV (4:30 pm ET | FOX, full TV & streaming info).

2020 Chris Mueller highlights

Two years into his time at the University of Wisconsin, the now 24-year-old realized something: He didn’t have a backup plan. His goal and his life growing up was soccer. Even going back to his time as a kid in Chicago when he would spend days practicing with his club team, followed by street soccer with his friends at an abandoned hockey rink by his house. Soccer over everything. 

So when the end of his eligibility crept closer, Mueller started looking for any way to make sure his career didn’t end in Madison. He found “Mind Gym.” That’s the shortened title anyway. Its Christian name is “Mind Gym: An Athlete’s Guide to Inner Excellence.” And the book helped Mueller find just that. Outer excellence followed.

His junior year, he became an All-Big Ten First-Team selection. His senior year, he earned the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year award. He did enough to be selected sixth overall by Orlando in the 2018 SuperDraft and put that backup plan on hold. 

“My junior year, I was like, this is everything that's come from this focus and having that ingrained. Good things were coming my way. And I just started to believe that,” Mueller said. “I just went deeper and deeper and senior year was the same. I was driven hungry, focused, motivated. I wasn't going out. I wasn't partying. But I was watching film. And that brought me even more success. And I was like, well, I'm just going to keep going.”

Mueller, like plenty of athletes do, sees himself as an underdog. To be fair, he checks in at about 5-foot-9, 170 lbs. and doesn’t necessarily radiate the presence of a superstar athlete. He looks largely unassuming until you watch him dust someone on the wing. But that extra chip on the shoulder can be a good thing for any athlete. It’s another piece of motivation to latch onto. But what seems to really push him is something a little more familiar for most of us — regret. 

“I don't want to get to the end of the road at the end of my career and be able to look back and think that I could have done anything more myself. And I think that pain of regret that I could possibly feel if I don't do everything right now, that's in my control. I think that I would regret it and I don't want to,” he said. “That's what pretty much drives me every day.”

As you move higher and higher up the athletic ladder, fine margins matter more and more. If Mueller wasn’t going to be the most talented or athletic player then maximizing every possible attribute is going to feel crucial for him. Even if it can be draining at times to be so obsessively committed. 

“Everybody can do the basics. But what separates you and what makes you different?  I think that leads back down to your habits and the things that you do away from the facility that really can be that driving force,” Mueller said.

“I'm learning how to manage it and trying to find the balance with like enjoying like the present and my life for what it is right now when not always being so future-focused. Even though most of the time I think ‘I need to do this for the future. I need to do this and I need to do this. Or no, I can't eat that. Or I need to wake up at 5 am today even though we may have gotten back at four in the morning from an overnight flight.’ I'm just crazy like that.”