The biggest beneficiary of Khaly Thiam’s first half red card on Saturday night was Patrick Mullins. With the score level at 1-1, the Chicago Fire’s Thiam lashed out after a foul and threw the ball at Patrick Nyarko, earning him a straight red card. From there, Mullins took over for D.C. United, as the Black-and-Red beat the Fire 6-2, with Mullins scoring three goals.
It was his first professional hat trick, as United strengthened their hold on the sixth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, four points ahead of Orlando City SC.
"It was a special night for me, and obviously for the team, to get the three points," Mullins said after the game. "It was a fun one to share with RFK [Stadium]. I’m not going to forget this one."
In just his seventh appearance with United (five starts) Mullins fired himself into the team lead for goals in 2016, with five goals since the Black-and-Red acquired him via trade. Against the Fire, he made the most of a pass from Patrick Nyarko in the first half to give United a lead that they would not relinquish. He scored his second just before halftime on a feed from Luciano Acosta, giving United a 3-1 lead that would last less than a minute.
Mullins just missed out on his hat trick on what ended up being Nyarko’s goal in the 51st minute, but the University of Maryland product perfectly timed a run in the box in the 74th minute, redirecting Sean Franklin’s cross under the Fire’s Sean Johnson for his third goal of the evening.
Just the kind of thing that United have come to expect from their new striker.
"If you look at his goals, they were very good goals. He’s in good spots, he’s predictable in the way he plays," said manager Ben Olsen in his post game press conference. "He seems to be finding that relationship with attacking players, in particular with [Acosta]. That’s healthy."
And in a sense, it's a vindication of sorts for Mullins. He scored four goals in his rookie season with the New England Revolution, but then moved to New York City FC in the expansion draft in 2015. He tallied six times that year, but hardly saw the field in 2016 for the Pigeons, making just seven appearances and two starts.
He’s appeared in seven games for United since the trade in July that brought him to the nation’s capital, and all he has done is score since arriving.
"I always knew what I was capable of. I’m still growing, still mastering my craft. But I have belief in myself," Mullins said after the game. "I’m with a group of guys here that believe in me. It’s been a long season for me, and nights like tonight make it all worth it."
Even though it was against a 10-man Chicago side for 55 minutes, one of the worst teams in the league this year, there was still signs of promise of Mullins’ relationship with his teammates. Especially with Acosta, who had the primary assist on Mullins’ first goal, and a secondary assist on his third strike. And now that he’s fitting in with his teammates and providing some of the goals that the team has been missing this season, United have finally started looking like a capable playoff team in 2016.
"He’s got so much talent, if you move, he’ll find you," Mullins said of Acosta after the game. "I think you saw that on the second goal. Just a little over the shoulder run, and he’s going to find you, whether it's from a flick or just a basic ball in like the one tonight. I’ve enjoyed playing with him."
And he’s winning the praise of his teammates with not only his goals, but the way he makes his team better.
"He has a bit of an edge to him. He’s not afraid to kick defenders, make their night tough," said teammate Bobby Boswell. "He’s hard to game plan against because you’re not really sure what he is going to do. He’s good in the air, but he’s not bad with his feet either."
But even on a night when United scored six times, the game wasn’t all roses. Bill Hamid spilled a shot that led to Michael de Leeuw firing in to level the game at 1-1, and even after Thiam was sent off, Chicago scored on the stroke of halftime, through Razvan Cocis’ deflected effort. That left United up 3-2 at the half, even though they were up a man.
And even though they had taken the early lead, Olsen wasn’t quite pleased with the team’s performance before the red card.
"My take on the first half was that it was pretty poor in how we started the game," said Olsen. "It looked like we were not up for it, and they looked like they had a little bit more pulse to them. And they looked like the team that wanted to be in the playoffs."
"They bailed us out with the red card, and that obviously changes the game."
It’s was still United’s job to take care of the game after Thiam got sent off though, and United did just that, scoring three times in the second half, and only surrendering two shots in the second 45, with only David Accam’s effort forcing Hamid into action. So now the trick is to be able to repeat some of this goal scoring outburst in upcoming games, to solidify the team’s playoff position.
"It was a good performance tonight," Mullins said. "But we need to keep re-performing that day in and day out."