For the past several years, the Georgetown men’s soccer team’s list of award recipients has become fairly standard fare.
Center midfielder Ian Christianson — an All-American two years ago as a sophomore — and left back Jimmy Nealis — this year’s preseason Big East defensive player of the year — have been linchpins on the pitch for the Hoyas in each of their four years on the Hilltop, and they’ve been recognized accordingly.
After those two seniors, there’s junior forward Steve Neumann, who was named to the Hermann Trophy Watch List prior to this season and was one of just two players honored as a unanimous preseason all-Big East selection.
If not for a nagging back injury that has hampered him throughout his career, senior central defender Tommy Muller’s name would likely have come before that of each member of that standout trio.
Head Coach Brian Wiese brought the Orlando native to Georgetown for a four-day camp the summer before Muller’s senior year of high school and quickly realized that he had found a can’t-miss recruit.
“By the second afternoon, I’m calling his club coach, saying, ‘We have to get this Tommy Muller kid,’” Wiese said. “I’m trying to find out everything I can about him because he was so good, and we knew he was going to be a special player.”
Exactly how special Muller would turn out to be, though, was still a surprise.
Wiese recalls starting him at right back in a Big East matchup with Syracuse during his freshman year and being blown away by the rookie’s talent and composure.
Unfortunately, it was during that season that Muller’s injury first manifested itself, and he was limited to just eight appearances on the campaign.
“It’s been tough, just because the nature of the back injury is that it’s kind of sporadic. It comes off and on whenever. … It’s definitely been hard because there have been games that I thought I was playing in, and then my back would act up,” Muller said. “So it’s been a progression all four years trying to manage it [and] trying to maintain good enough health to be able to play.”
But, in missing just two games his sophomore year and only one as a junior, Muller got the chance to make his mark.
“When we went to UNC two years ago in the [NCAA] Tournament, he was the best player on the field [when] we lost in penalty kicks,” Wiese said. “When we went to UConn last year — who was No. 1 in the country at the time — he was the best player on the field.”
“[In big games,] he just says, ‘I’m going to take care of this,’ and he takes care of it.”
Having experienced the highest levels of collegiate soccer and having begun to cement his spot among the elite, Muller came into his senior year aiming higher than ever.
After starting Georgetown’s first two games in wins over Virginia and Florida Gulf Coast, though, his back problems resurfaced. It wasn’t until nine games later, in late September, that the Hoyas’ defensive anchor was once again a permanent fixture in the starting 11.
“It definitely wasn’t how I saw senior year playing out [because] obviously, I wanted to be a part of every game,” Muller said. “But in the beginning of the season when it happened, I had to step back and be smart about being ready for the most important games.”
That decision not to rush his recovery would prove a perceptive one, as Muller’s presence was always going to be needed most during the rigors of Big East play. As it turns out, however, the team pulled through without him. When Muller returned for good against Pittsburgh, his team was undefeated at 9-0-1.
That’s not to say that the senior’s presence wasn’t missed: Of the Blue and Gray’s eight shutouts on the season, just two have come with Muller watching from the sidelines.
The back line was the one unstable part of the highly ranked Hoyas lineup, with freshman midfielder Cole Seiler sliding back into an unfamiliar position in the center of the defense alongside inexperienced junior Ted Helfrich and freshman right back Keegan Rosenberry. With Muller out, Nealis became the only returning defensive starter.
The calming influence and confidence that the center back has brought to the defense since coming back was evident in gritty wins over Providence and No. 4 Marquette, a game in which Muller himself supplied the opener.
“He’s the everything guy. He’s fast, he can play with both feet, he can score goals, he’s a leader, he’s good in the air [and] he’s smart on the field. He’s the complete package,” Wiese said.
Those many talents are also what might make Muller’s career after he graduates early in December. The MLS’ FC Dallas and an unnamed Swedish club are both interested in the Floridian, who plans to participate in January’s MLS combine.
But in spite of his injury-riddled past and what looks to be a promising future, it’s all about the present for Muller, who, with his team sitting at No. 6 in the country, still has every chance of having the senior season he’d been hoping for.