When Chris Mueller returned to Major League Soccer from Hibernian, some viewed it as the forward coming back with his tail between his legs after an unsuccessful stint in Europe.
It’s true that Mueller failed to deliver the goods on the pitch, scoring just one goal in five months and 15 matches in Scotland. A sharp comedown after his 21 goal/24 assist spell with Orlando City – enough to see him pick up his first two caps and goals for the USMNT.
But Mueller is upbeat about his time with Hibs, insisting he ‘learned a ton’ about himself during his time across the pond.
“I wasn’t playing as much, you know, it was really hard for me,” Mueller told reporters at a mid-week press conference. “But nonetheless I think that I went there for a reason. I learned a lot about the experience, in terms of being in a country, being in another culture, seeing how people from different parts of the world function in their day-to-day lives. I think that I tried to go into the whole thing with an open mind and tried to learn from the experience as it was, not even just on the football pitch, although I learned a ton about myself on the football pitch as a player.”
Now that he’s back in his native Illinois with the Chicago Fire, Mueller will look to use all he learned in Scotland to help his new team climb off the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings and into the MLS Cup Playoff spots.
In particular, Mueller believes he’s gained more mental fortitude thanks to the intensity and all-consuming nature of soccer in Scotland.
“It was more about the mental grind that I was going through in terms of not getting the minutes that I wanted,” he said. “The team wasn’t doing particularly well either, we were losing a ton of games, and when you’re over there in Scotland, football is No. 1 for all the people.
“And if you’re not doing well on the football pitch, it’s hard to have an outlet in any other way or shape. It seems like all eyes are on you guys, and when things aren’t going well, people let you know about it. It’s a much higher-pressure situation and all that, so just completely different. Different style of play, it’s much more direct, just faster in terms of the pressing that is constant over there and the commitment to defend. I could go on and on about the differences and the things that I learned, but like I said, it was a positive experience because of how I came out on this side now.”
Whether or not he showed his true potential in Scotland, Mueller is a proven MLS commodity and a quality player at this level – that much is not in doubt. One man thrilled to see him back Stateside is Fire head coach Ezra Hendrickson, who will look to form a connection between Mueller and DP playmaker Xherdan Shaqiri to improve Chicago’s faltering offense.
“Chris is a very good player. He’s another player that we’re going to want to get on the ball because of the things that he can do, on and off the ball,” Hendrickson said. “His runs off the ball, his timing, getting behind defenses is very good. So that’s someone who will help Shaq as far as having someone else to get on the end of things, because we all know what Shaq can do with the ball. And now we’re starting to push the issue more about getting behind defenses, which will open up our game a lot more.
“So, Chris brings that opportunity for us, his one-v-one abilities, as well as his ability to get behind defenses and get on the end of some of these passes from Shaq and from Gastón [Giménez] and the guys from the midfield. We’re very happy to have him and he’s a great addition to the team.”
There are few players in MLS with the CV of Shaqiri, who won titles in Europe with giants such as Liverpool, Bayern Munich, and Inter. Naturally, Mueller is just as excited about forming an on-field connection with the Switzerland international.
“Shaqiri’s obviously a really, really good player who’s played at the top level all across Europe and whatnot,” Mueller said.
“When you have someone like that who has such good vision and is so good on the ball, he helps in the pockets. But in terms of I feel like off the ball, I can make some pretty decent runs in behind for him to pick out. And obviously, with a player of his quality, he’s got it in his locker to put a ball over the top or to slip a ball through. As long as I’m making good runs and looking to combine with him, I think that we can definitely work well together in that sense.”