Chris Mueller key to Fire’s playoff hopes

Chris Mueller didn’t have his best game in a Fire jersey Wednesday at the New England Revolution. After getting stopped on a 22nd-minute penalty kick, Mueller was anonymous before he was subbed out in the 71st minute of what turned out to be a 0-0 tie.

Yet the Fire know their flickering playoff hopes would be dead without Mueller.

“Since the moment Chris arrived, both in the locker room, on the field, in the games, he’s just been a blessing to the team,” defender Jonathan Bornstein said. “I really enjoy playing with the guy. We get along really well off the field. Ever since he’s come into the group, we’ve had another element in the team we didn’t have before.”

A Schaumburg product, Mueller rose to stardom with Orlando City before jumping to Scottish side Hibernian in January. Mueller’s time in Scotland didn’t go well, and after 15 appearances, he was acquired by the Fire in May.

Since then, Mueller has been the Fire’s best attacker, contributing four goals and three assists in 19 games while representing one of sporting director Georg Heitz’s best moves. If not for Mueller, it would be hard to see where the Fire could look for consistent production. Xherdan Shaqiri’s impact has been blunted by his health issues, and attackers Kacper Przybylko and Jairo Torres have made minimal contributions.

Mueller’s pace and skill have been noticeable on the wing, stretching opposing defenses and creating room for Fire attackers to create chances.

Bornstein, who faced Mueller before he shifted to Europe, isn’t surprised by what he’s seen since they became teammates. And Bornstein doesn’t think Mueller is playing with something to prove because his brief time in Scotland was a struggle.

That’s just how Mueller has always played.

“As long as he doesn’t lose that, he’ll have a long and illustrious career and he’ll continue to get better throughout his career,” Bornstein said.

One concern about Mueller is the amount of soccer he’s played this year. Unlike most of his teammates, Mueller didn’t have an offseason and he might be showing signs of tiring.

The heavy workload is something coach Ezra Hendrickson is monitoring. Because if Mueller goes down – or if his productivity dips due to fatigue – the Fire will have few dependable attackers left.

That factor, and Mueller’s performance Wednesday, explained why he was replaced with 20 minutes left in a game that was there for the Fire to win.

“He’s a big part of our team, and we do have to be careful that, playing two seasons, we don’t cause injuries there because we’ve lost a lot of key players now,” Hendrickson said, “and we have to be careful we have enough players to finish the season.”

Beyond Mueller, the Fire attack as a whole has slowed. The Fire (8-13-7, 31 points) haven’t scored since Mueller’s goal in the 49th minute of a 4-1 loss to Philadelphia, and have been blanked for the last 310 minutes of soccer.

Generating something, whether it’s from Mueller or somebody else, is a must for the Fire as they try to prolong their season Saturday at Columbus (9-6-12, 39 points). With six matches left, the Fire are five points out of a playoff spot and can’t afford any more quiet offensive games like the past three.

But if anybody’s going to score, Mueller still seems like a good bet.

“[Mueller] wears his heart on his sleeve,” Hendrickson said. “He’s a guy that’s going to go out and fight for you and put in the effort game-in and game-out.”

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