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Chris Mueller Back In ‘The Best Place’, Ready To Change Chicago Fire’s MLS Fortunes

Chris Mueller Back In ‘The Best Place’, Ready To Change Chicago Fire’s MLS Fortunes

By Mike Rice for WFi.

As a Chicago native, Chris Mueller is well aware of the impact sport has on his city. Having returned to Major League Soccer in July this year, he now represents his hometown side who are looking to find the success they had in their early days in MLS.

The city of Chicago is steeped in sporting history. No matter your preference there are teams that draw the attention of fans all over the world. He was recently honoured with the opportunity to throw the first pitch for Chicago Cubs

“I went out to throw the pitch and was around family and friends sang the seven-inning stretch, which is a big deal here in Chicago, I enjoyed it, such a cool experience,” Mueller told WFi.

“It’s one of the best places to play sports, full of die-hard fans, super loud, super passionate. We have such historic teams, and each team is a huge part of the city.”

He speaks so passionately about the city, and after departing Orlando City for Hibernian in the Scottish Premiership earlier this year, he returned to the league with the Fire.

“It’s great, it’s been fun to be back home,” he says. “Being able to be around family and in a familiar league where I have found my form again is great. The short stint in Scotland didn’t work out, but it’s fun to be home.”

The manager who brought Mueller to Hibs was replaced quite soon after he arrived, and a number of changes continued to happen at the club in the build-up to the 2022/23 season.

It was just a short stint away, but Mueller is back in MLS which has been changing rapidly, especially over the last year or two. Some of the young players coming through are immediately being signed by European sides, while international stars like Gareth Bale and Xherdan Shaqiri are arriving.

“I feel like the league makes huge strides each year,” says Mueller. “It’s obviously a great thing. Maybe I didn’t give it the credit it deserved when I left, but it’s so good and I’m really enjoying being back in the mix.”

I learned a ton there [in Scotland], I loved Hibs and the city of Edinburgh, but I had to make a decision that was best for me and my personal situation at the time for my career.

“The situation felt a little unstable at the time, but I learnt so much playing and training in a different country as well as how so much is different in the culture and so much more to what I have experienced playing in the US.

“To play in the Edinburgh derbies, they were special experiences, especially from the atmosphere the fans create, it was really fun. And to play against the likes of Celtic and Rangers, it was an amazing experience.”

Chicago Fire have made a big impact on the soccer scene in the United States, especially in their early years.

They won the MLS Cup and US Open Cup double in 1998, lost out in the MLS Cup to Kansas City in 2000, though did win Open Cup that year, as well as in 2003 and 2006. They have also had some world-class talent play for them, such as Hristo Stoichkov.

Things have not been so good in recent years and the club have only reached the playoffs once in the past six years, but Mueller believes they are going in the right direction, and that the move the club was good for him personally.

“It was a bit of being closer to family; I had been away seven months, and this was my first choice to return to the city,” he says. “But also, a lot was for the new steps the club are taking and the direction they are going into. Around Chicago, you hear the buzz and excitement about the team with the direction they are trying to rebrand and work towards.

“With [coach] Ezra [Hendrickson], he had a lot of faith in me. And [this], coupled with family and the direction of the club, it made it so easy to come back and sign for the club.”

Hendrickson is in his first year as a head coach in MLS, though has plenty of experience as an assistant as well as leading the Seattle Sounders 2 side.

He has looked to make to step up and has shown some a clear direction in what the club is working towards producing on the pitch.

“Aside from what I had known about him previously, I knew I could succeed in the league, which made me feel I could be confident in myself on the pitch in MLS,” Mueller says of the current setup.

“Ezra knew me, and I think saw me score on his teams a few times. I could see what he is working towards so in the end, it was a no-brainer.”

Hendrickson’s side have shown the different philosophies he is trying to introduce to the team. So defensively solid in the early stages of the season, they struggled to get the ball forward and were one of the lowest-scoring sides in the league.

Since then they have opened up more, especially with the addition of Mueller, and seem to have been finding the balance they had been working towards. 

“With a new head coach, it can take time to change a culture and work towards everyone being on the same page,” Mueller says.

“He has had to get the leadership from players in the squad as well which takes time under a change of direction, and I think we have that here.

“There have been a number of individual mistakes at a variety of times which has ended up costing us at crucial times [in games].

“Those are the margins you play with here, even now the table is so tight. In some of those games we either dominated and didn’t get the three points, or games we lost through a mistake, if we had seen them out, we could have 10 or 12 points more than we do. That’s what I can remember in just the time I have been here.

“We are building such a strong, positive culture here. Ezra is leading it really well, and we are learning the system.

“The young guys are all performing well, and we just need to build a winning mentality to try and bring a trophy back to this city.”

 Coming in during what can be considered the start of the prime of his career, age-wise, Mueller has contributed well to improving how the team attack.

Like any forward, he wants to see them be sharper and more dangerous, but his addition has really raised the talent across the front line.

As a Spanish speaker as well, he has been able to build good relationships with some of the newer players, like Jhon Durán, and the group look to be building a strong bond.

“I’m a pretty relatable guy,” Mueller says. “I’m able to speak with everyone and try to pass on my experiences, mesh with everyone, while also working well with veteran players.

“I like to be a supportive player and one that is in the middle line of still developing but experienced enough to also help others.”

Mueller and a number of other experienced professionals have definitely helped the younger players step into the team and perform with confidence.

The likes of Gabriel Slonina have been able to burst onto the scene and having the support of his teammates has helped him stay composed and even go on to earn a move to Chelsea in the Premier League.

Mueller finished the season with four goals and five assists in his 24 MLS appearances in 2022, but the main thing for him in this campaign was a return to regular football.

I just wanted to get back playing regularly, getting minutes under my belt,” he says when asked about targets.

“I wanted to be back to myself and full of joy while playing. I felt I was a bit robotic in Scotland, not quite myself, which could have been because of the transition period, and maybe with more time, I would have loosened up more.

“Mostly coming back, I just wanted to get back to my best and try to help the club get into the playoffs seeing as we have only reached the playoffs twice in about 12 years.”

They haven’t quite made it this year but there are signs of growth, and they still have good support around the city.

“It looks like we will have a lot of stability and guys who are ready to build continuity and determination next season,” Mueller adds.

“We have shown quality and some results we let slip, but they are learning opportunities this year to build for 2023.”

All eyes in American soccer will now turn to the men’s World Cup. The United States qualified after missing out on 2018, expectations are high, and there is plenty of competition for places.

Mueller has a couple of caps for the USMNT, scoring twice and assisting one in his debut over El Salvador back in 2020.

“I had a great debut and a decent January camp after and felt I can be part of the team again in the future,” he says of his current international situation.

Having been through the college system and not represented the US in the different age categories, Mueller’s debut in 2020 was his first experience of being part of a national team camp.

He came into the USMNT setup without having come through the age groups in youth football as other players have.

I feel like it was a blessing,” he says of his introduction to the national team setup.

“A lot of times nowadays with the wrong mentality it can get to your head. That’s just me being honest, by not making the groups as a young player I felt I was always good enough but that kept pushing me to develop and get better.

“Going in too soon, who knows how it would have affected me. You have to manage your ego and stay humble, and I think that can be difficult if you’re going through the age groups.”

Going through the college system, Mueller attended the University of Wisconsin, where he was able to grow as a person as much as a player in the soccer team.

It’s something he thinks has helped in becoming more mature and self-dependent, which has helped in being more prepared for when he was drafted in the MLS SuperDraft in 2018.

“It was important to mature and be a man, to step into becoming myself,” he reflects. “If I had stepped into a locker room at 17, I don’t think I would have made it.

“To deal with the criticism, the challenges, and emotions of the game — I may not have been emotional enough to deal with it.

“To go to college for four years was vital for my growth and helped me come into the league better prepared to succeed.”

The way Mueller speaks, his confidence is encouraging, and you really buy into the honest way he has laid out what the club are trying to do and how he wants to be part of a successful Chicago side.

For those who have never experienced Chicago and the immersive sports environment it has, Mueller speaking so passionately about it can help convey the importance of sports in the city. For any soccer or sports fan, it’s an impressive place to visit.

Soldier Field is one of the most historic venues for sports in the country, it’s definitely a place you need to see,” enthuses Mueller.

“We have had an amazing atmosphere and the city, for me, is the best city in the country. The food, culture, sports, the history, and right on the water — there is so much to see and experience, one of the best cities in the world.

“The Midwest has a great group of people which make me always say that Chicago is the best place. But maybe not January to March, unless you are used to the cold weather!”