2017 didn’t go well for just about any D.C. United player, and perhaps no one summed that up more than Patrick Mullins. After scoring 8 goals and 2 assists in the final 14 games of 2016, expectations were extremely high. I myself was thinking Mullins could produce a 15 goals/5 assist kind of season, in a world where United maintained the free-scoring form they had from August onward last year.
Instead, we entered the third week of September with Mullins sitting on 0 (zero) goals, while United was (at the time) dead last in goals scored as a team. What happened?
First of all, preseason didn’t go all that well. Ben Olsen noted that his fitness wasn’t as high as the team expected, but more importantly he suffered through multiple injuries. First up, a hamstring strain that kept him off the field from mid-March until April 30th. United tried to build him back up over the next five games, including opting to only use him as a sub on May 27th’s trip out to Vancouver (you might remember that United’s next game was four days later, in Orlando...thanks MLS schedule).
However, that substitute appearance saw Mullins awkwardly tweak his knee within a minute or so of stepping onto the field. The resulting injury required a surgical procedure to repair his meniscus, and Mullins missed two whole months before a 20 minute cameo on July 29th. Even then, the idea was to build him back up to full fitness rather than toss him into the deep end, and Mullins didn’t start a game until August 19th’s 1-0 win over Colorado. In the end, the Louisiana native went 13 games between starts.
The injuries ended up disrupting Mullins’ season so much that he only managed to play 27 more minutes in 2017 than he did for United in 2016, despite having only arrived with 14 games left last year. It also left him carrying some obvious issues with confidence in front of goal, with Mullins both appearing hesitant to get into the positions he made his own last year and unable to finish when he did. Injured or not, realizing you don’t have a goal come August becomes a big problem for any striker in MLS, and that lack of belief in himself became a self-fulfilling prophecy.
However, once he broke through, we saw a glimpse of what Mullins can do when he’s not trapped inside his own head:
The classic off-the-shoulder run Mullins produced at the start of this video ended with a 57th minute goal against the San Jose Earthquakes, and by the time the game was over he had broken an MLS record by scoring four goals in 31 minutes. You can see the difference between 0 goals Mullins and more-than-0-goals Mullins on the second goal, when he throws both arms skyward and almost hops with excitement in trying to signal Paul Arriola to cross to him. Reading body language can be very tricky, but that instance was unmistakable.
Obviously we’ve seen both highs and lows from Mullins. Oddly enough, he now has 34 appearances for United, and his 13 goals over that time are not a bad haul for a hypothetical season. The extremes of his play are both probably not indicators of what he’ll do given a full season free of injury (which had been the norm previously, as Mullins had gone four years at Maryland and three more as a pro without spending time in the “Out” section of any injury report), but expecting 13 goals in 34 is probably reasonable, if on the low side.
Of course, United has already hinted more than once that they plan on making a big-money signing up front, which would — barring a major formation change that wouldn’t really suit either Luciano Acosta or Zoltan Stieber — leave Mullins as a second-choice option. You have to wonder how he’ll handle that. Previously with New England and NYCFC, he made an impact despite not being a regular starter (10 goals and 5 assists in 2014 and 2015), but his breakout came when United made a big trade to acquire him, and then placed their trust in him to be The Guy.
Despite his struggles this season, the vibe I’ve gotten is that most United fans expect him to bounce back, but that no one is quite expecting the 20 or so goals per season that his 2016 scoring rate promised. Whether Olsen can help maintain the level of confidence Mullins needs to be a real threat is also worth considering.
And that’s what we’re asking you to do:
Do you want Patrick Mullins back for the 2018 season?
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