But you’d hardly know it based on the Orlando City SC winger’s performance as he supplied two goals and one assist during a first-half onslaught that capped the 2020 USMNT calendar with a bang.
Some calming words from head coach Gregg Berhalter paid off, too.
“Obviously it's been my first time in the camp, so I think I might have had a little bit of nerves in the first couple of training sessions,” Mueller said in his postgame virtual press conference. “Obviously learning so much, you're trying not to overthink, you're trying to do your best, you're trying to impress.
“There's a lot of things that are running through your head and he kind of just took me aside, told me to calm down a little bit and said, 'Hey, you know, you had a great year, you're here for a reason because you've earned it, you've worked really hard. Just be yourself out there, be who you've been all year, don't try and be something else now that you're here and try to change a bunch of things. Just continue to be yourself and be Chris Mueller.' That's what I tried to do and show today.”
Watch: Chris Mueller's USMNT debut goal
Mueller is coming off a career season with Orlando, posting 10 goals and seven assists in just 22 games. The third-year pro, who was selected No. 6 overall in 2018 SuperDraft out of the University of Wisconsin, took a big step forward as the Lions made the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs for the first time in club history.
That form inspired confidence from Berhalter, who said he told Mueller before the El Salvador game to “just be you.” What followed was 90 quality minutes that mirrored what initially piqued Berhalter’s interest as the 24-year-old dazzled MLS all year.
“What I saw this year in Orlando was just him having a little bit more guidance with his movement, with his running,” Berhalter said. “He always was a guy that gave you great effort, but this year in particular, I felt that you could see there was more of an understanding of where he needed to run, when he needed to run. That's going to be important at this level as well. The difference is the margins are really small at the international level, you have to be smart with your movement and really good timing with your movements, so we're happy with Chris. It was nice for him to cap off a strong year with a performance like this tonight.”
Mueller became the sixth player to bag a brace in his USMNT debut, starting in the 20th minute when he calmly finished inside the 18-yard box after being set up by Jackson Yueill. Mueller’s adventurous side then emerged in the 25th minute, as he went airborne to head home a Julian Araujo cross at the back post.
Mueller could’ve finished with a hat trick, but instead turned provider in the 27th minute on Ayo Akinola’s goal that capped the first-half blitz at 5-0.
Watch: Chris Mueller scores diving header
They’re all encouraging signs in Mueller’s nascent international career, but Berhalter doesn’t want the excitement to surge too high. Tougher tests await than an El Salvador side that was thoroughly played off the pitch.
“We still need to be cautious and careful a little bit. One game, I think, isn't going to put a guy in or now put a guy out, either way,” Berhalter said. “But it's a step for Chris and it was an important step. I'm really proud of the work he's done to get himself to this point. I mentioned in the locker room that he took a different path than most players are taking nowadays and still got to the same point. That's the great thing about soccer and a great thing about the work that Chris has put in. So, he definitely helped himself this week and it was great for us to finally work with him and get to know him. He's a great kid and I can see why Oscar [Pareja] really likes him.”
But with a busy 2021 nearing for the USMNT – World Cup qualifying, the Gold Cup and Nations League are all on the horizon – Mueller has certainly strengthened his case. Berhalter will need to call on domestic- and international-based players at various points, and Mueller knows tougher sledding awaits.
“As far as me trying to break in, I'm not going to do anything different,” Mueller said. “I'm going to just continue to try and learn, take things day by day. I know that this is a process and I've said that multiple times that it's just patience with it and continuing to work, continuing to believe. We'll see what happens from here. Obviously it's my first step. I played one game and we obviously got a good win, and let's just keep moving, let's keep seeing what happens.”