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D.C. United season review: Patrick Mullins

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United’s attack was revitalized after Mullins came to town

Back on July 20th, D.C. United was not in a good place. The Black-and-Red was 5W-7D-7L, the definition of mediocrity. They had been held to one or zero goals on in 15 of their 19 games, and three of the times they did manage to get a second goal came against Vancouver and New England (teams that missed the playoffs). United wasn’t creating many chances, and when they did have a look at goal it was often wasted.

Meanwhile, about four hours north, Patrick Mullins basically not playing at all at New York City FC. Patrick Vieira’s various formations all featured a lone center forward, and with David Villa playing 90 minutes every week there simply weren’t any openings. Mullins, a MAC Hermann Trophy winner at the University of Maryland who had managed 10 goals and 5 assists in just 2,238 professional minutes (that’s 73.1% of one full season) coming into 2016 had seen the field for just 230 minutes. NYCFC had played 21 games at that point; Mullins had only appeared in a third of them.

United needed a more mobile target man capable of incorporating the rest of the midfield in the attack. The move to the 4141 formation designed to benefit Luciano Acosta had been made, but the early returns were still middling (1W-2D-1L). Mullins needed to be on the field more often. And so, while the deal to send both kinds of allocation money and an international roster spot through 2017 to NYCFC in exchange for Mullins came as a surprise, it also seemed like a very logical move. After all, no team was better set up to see Mullins play in college on a regular basis. You can make the drive from RFK to Ludwig Field in under half an hour in the right conditions.

So this trade made sense on paper, but what United ended up getting exceeded even our very lofty expectations. The day after he arrived, I set a target of 5-6 goals and 3-4 assists in United’s remaining 15 games at that point. Mullins appeared in 14 games during the rest of the season, starting 12 times, and put up 8 goals and 2 assists. That’s 0.69 goals per 90 minutes played, or a rate good enough to put him in the neighborhood of 20 goals over the course of an entire season.

At 24, Mullins is not a talented band-aid designed to hold United over until Buzzard Point opens up. The Louisiana native has the ability to be United’s starting center forward for years to come. On top of that, he developed a near-instant rapport with Acosta, who is unquestionably DCU’s attacking centerpiece. Quick chemistry is great, but imagine what those two can do with more time to refine that understanding. Acosta is going to get better. Mullins is going to get better.

And you know what that means, right? D.C. United is going to get better. United scored 35 goals in the 15 games that came after Mullins arrived, and were only held to one or fewer goals on three occasions. They were a changed team, obviously, and Mullins was an enormous factor in that department. His movement and passing ability opened up so much for onrushing midfielders, and the 4141 only really works with a center forward that can do a ton of things really well. If Mullins isn’t the aerial threat he is, or if he can’t play with his back to goal like he can, or if his movement off the ball isn’t such a problem for opposing defenses, or if his first touch or passing aren’t strong, this alignment runs into problems. Fortunately for United, Mullins is that dude.

So let’s get to it, then. You know a poll is coming up here, and you know what you need to do.