Orlando City SC head coach Oscar Pareja added his voice to the rising chorus proclaiming Chris Mueller’s candidacy as a US men’s national team prospect on Saturday as his side slipped past the Montreal Impact 1-0 to cruise into the quarterfinals of the MLS is Back Tournament.
“Sometimes it’s easy to say good things about your own player because you grow fond of him, because you see him working,” said Pareja. “With Chris in this case, I don’t want to go overboard with praise because he knows there’s still a lot of work to do. But the most important thing is that he has the will to transform himself into a great player. I think he has the talent and the US has a player for the national team.”
Orlando were composed but not dominant on the night and something similar can be said of Mueller, who was his usual lively self along the Lions’ right flank and went close on several chances. Despite proving unable to add to his 2020 tally of four goals, the Illinois native got plenty of positive feedback from his coach, who has engineered marked improvement in him and the rest of the squad in his relatively limited time in charge.
“It’s still a growth process,” said Pareja of Mueller. “He’s learning to move in between the lines, he’s getting into the box, he’s using his tools. He’s understanding the game more. There’s a lot left to do, but he’s heading in a good direction.”
Watch: Mueller scores two vs. NYCFC
Saturday's victory ensures that Mueller will get at least one more chance to show his quality at MLS is Back, where USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter has been taking in every match, typically from a field-side vantage point. Like Pareja and Mueller himself, Berhalter has stressed the importance of the 23-year-old from Illinois remaining grounded and focused, though it seems clear that Mueller is on his radar.
“Enjoy what your team is doing now,” said Berhalter of his advice for Mueller when asked about him in a media roundtable on Tuesday. “It looks like a completely different team. I know you've been in Orlando since the beginning, it hasn't always looked like that. Enjoy this period. All the rest is going to come, because as these guys maintain their level and continue to perform at a high level, it's going to give the coaching staff confidence that they can do it at international level.”