Patrick Mullins had trouble finding a permanent home to start his MLS career. The two-time M.A.C. Hermann Trophy winner at the University of Maryland, an award given to the best collegiate player in the country, figured to be a high pick in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft. It was even reckoned that D.C. United, who owned the first overall pick after the 2013 season, could select Mullins, having seen him play plenty of times in college due to the proximity of Maryland and RFK Stadium.
But United traded down to the second spot, picked Steve Birnbaum, and Mullins curiously dropped down. And kept dropping. Until the New Orleans-born striker was selected 11th overall by the New England Revolution.
Mullins had a mildly successful rookie season, scoring four times and adding an assist for a team deep at the forward position. But the Revolution left him exposed during that year’s expansion draft, and New York City FC chose to bring Mullins aboard for their inaugural season. Mullins improved, scoring six times, with four helpers to his name. But with a new coach in Patrick Vieira in 2016, Mullins didn’t see the field much for City, failing to register a goal while David Villa took up the playing time up front.
That was before he was traded to United, who had wanted the striker all along. And after eight goals and two assists with the Black-and-Red in just 14 games, Mullins was rewarded with a contract extension before the start of the 2017 season.
“Contracts are more of an indication of some past work that you have put in, and the results of that. But also [the contract] is a belief going forward, some of which I think I already had from the club,” Mullins recently told B&RU, during the team’s final preseason camp. “This is a nice affirmation of that. I’m very happy, I’m very excited. It’s a club that I love, and really believe in.”
Having played for three clubs in his first three years in MLS wasn’t easy on Mullins. But now that he has the backing from United, he believes that he’s found himself in an ideal situation.
“I’ve had a few destinations so far in a short amount of time, but I think it felt great to have that affirmation. They saw something in me that they wanted to continue to see,” said Mullins.
That doesn’t mean though that he thinks he’s now the undisputed starter up top, especially with Costa Rican Jose Ortiz with D.C. now.
“It doesn’t mean anything for the future in terms of playing time, there’s still competition,” Mullins added. “But to have that backing from the coaches and the club, does mean a lot as a player.”
According to a report from MLSsoccer.com’s Sam Stejskal, the new deal for Mullins won’t kick in until 2018. Then, he’ll have two guaranteed years, with the club holding an option for the 2020 season.
Mullins’ arrival in the nation’s capital last year coincided with a drastic shake up from head coach Ben Olsen. Having sputtered offensively throughout the first half of the season, Olsen deviated from his trusted 4-4-2 formation to a 4-1-4-1 that favored playmaker Luciano Acosta. Inserting Mullins up front after adding him in a trade with New York City was the perfect solution to United’s scoring woes, as they became one of the highest-scoring teams in MLS in 2016.
Although preferring a two-striker system, Mullins says that Olsen’s current formation also gets some of the best traits of out himself.
“I have some skills and tendencies that fit in well [with Olsen’s system]. My hold-up play, bringing players into a game, whic as a lone forward, getting players around you, I think I do that well,” said Mullins. “Working defensively is a big part of that, especially in the modern game, and it’s what Ben expects of me and the other forwards.”
That defensive work isn’t something new to Mullins. Although Olsen has a reputation of asking a bit more of his strikers defensively, Mullins had experience with the workload in college under Sasho Cirovski. Plus, coming from his southern background, putting in defensive work is something that Mullins has always needed to stand out.
“That’s something that has been ingrained in me,” Mullins said of his defensive responsibilities. “Being a player from Louisiana, I always felt that I had to work harder than others to achieve, and go where I wanted to go. Same thing applied at Maryland, where our high pressing system required forwards to work.”
“It’s something that I like to do. When I’m doing [defensive work], as a player, I think I’m sharper, I think I’m better overall in helping our team.”
Despite the success Mullins had last year, he believes that there’s still plenty of room to improve his game. The 25 year-old, while adept at holding up the ball and getting teammates involved, believes that making runs in and around defenses is something he can work on.
That’s something that his competitor for minutes at striker, Ortiz, showed that he is more than capable of during preseason.
“There are a few things. I’d like to be able to work the channels more at times.,” Mullins told B&RU in Florida. “I think I do well in between the two center backs, but I think to threaten a bit more, if we get a little compact, to have a release. I think that’s something our team could benefit from.”
But there’s also plenty he wants to bring back from his strong end to the 2016 season, which saw him record his first professional hat trick, in a 6-2 win over the Chicago Fire in August.
“I think we’ve got creative guys in Luciano Acosta, Patrick Nyarko, Lloyd Sam, Lamar Neagle, Sebastien Le Toux, so it’s important to have someone in that number 9 spot who scores goals,” said Mullins. “It was a big part of why we had success, after figuring out the identity, of who wanted to be at the end of last year.”
For the most part, United brought back the same core of players that it ended 2016 with. The opening day lineup against Sporting Kansas City is expected to feature 11 players who were with the club last year. Ortiz and Le Toux were two of the bigger names brought in this year, with Maxim Tissot also brought along, in addition to rookies Ian Harkes, Chris Odoi-Atsem, and Eric Klenofsky.
A similar situation for United, going from the 2012 to 2013 season, backfired on the club. United lost in the Conference Finals in 2012, and then kept the same core of players together for the next year. That season was a disaster for the most part, with United covering up the fact that it only won three league games by capturing the US Open Cup with a stunning win out west against Real Salt Lake.
United doesn’t seem on path to repeat that failure, but it’s something that Mullins, who was excelling in college at the time, is acutely aware of.
“In this league, it’s very much a year-to-year thing. Teams before have brought back a core, and for one reason or another, they tried the same things and it didn’t click,” said the Louisiana native. “The main thing is just getting on the same page on what we’re going to be successful in. If that means it looks a little different, or it’s tweaked a little different than where we left off, I think we’re okay with that. The biggest thing is to remain hungry, and put the team first.”
And though the preseason goal might be the same as always for United - make the playoffs, and go from there - Mullins is hoping that the team can achieve much more than they managed with a strong end to 2016.
“I want to do better. We ended well, but not as well as everyone wanted. I think that’s a start for us,” said the striker. “Where that finishes, that’s to be determined. We want to put ourselves in a good position, and see where that gets us.”