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A scoring outburst from Patrick Mullins gives glimpse into what could have been for D.C. United

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A resounding win over San Jose was nice, while showing what United missed out on in 2017

In the 57th minute minute against the San Jose Earthquakes, Patrick Mullins finally did it. Finally, after a year full of injuries and missed games and missed opportunities, but no goals, Mullins scored his first of the season. And amazingly enough, it did not stop there. By the 68th minute, Mullins had his hat trick. To cap it all off, he smashed in a free kick late on, to give him all four goals in United’s 4-0 win.

It was the fourth time in team history that a player had scored four goals in a game. Raul Diaz Arce did it twice, in 1996 and 1997. And Abdul Thompson Conteh did it for the Black-and-Red in 2001, though Mullins is the only one to do it entirely in one half.

And while it was fun for the night, in front of 25,229 fans at RFK Stadium in what was the team’s penultimate game at the storied grounds, there was also a sense of frustration. This was the team that United could have been in 2017. And while the last game at RFK next month will certainly be a party, it could have been all the more sweeter if United were going to have another home game in the playoffs.

“In some ways, [the win] pisses me off, that we’re in the situation we are,” head coach Ben Olsen said after the game. “We’ve got a good group. [There are] real players out there that can make a difference. And we just didn’t do it enough this year.”

To his point, the win was just the sixth for the Black-and-Red at home this year. They finally crossed the 30 point mark, but they are still averaging less than a goal per game, with just 27 goals in 30 games.

So as Mullins started pouring in the goals in the second half, United saw what could have been. Instead, they’ll have to build upon this performance, knowing that the next point from rivals New York Red Bulls, which could come on Wednesday against United, will eliminate the Black-and-Red from the playoffs.

Still, there was plenty to celebrate on Saturday night. Mullins took the league by storm last year, when he joined United in a trade with New York City FC in July. Mullins scored eight times, as United transformed from one of the league’s least potent attacks to a free-scoring offense. In the offseason, Mullins was rewarded with a new contract, one that seemed to denote him as the team’s future up top.

But in 2017, Mullins couldn’t replicate that success. Between form and injuries, it was nearly a year between goals for the striker.

“Personally, the first one goes in, and as a forward in this league, you want to get that first one quickly. It took me a long time this year, for many reasons,” Mullins said after the game in a press conference. “But I wanted to stay calm, I knew there was a lot of time left in the game. I’ll give myself credit, that composure kept my drive going, and it came to fruition with the next three goals.”

Mullins’ season got off to a slow start, as did United’s, as he picked up a hamstring injury in the third game of the season. Once he finally returned in May, he injured his knee almost immediately, which robbed him of another two months. In all, he’s played in just 16 games this season, starting just 9 times.

The injuries haven’t been something he’s dealt with before, and it seemed to weigh on him as United’s season slipped away during the summer months.

“Every season as a pro is different, different challenges. I had never dealt with an injury before, but I had dealt with a season with ups and downs,” said Mullins. “But to have it both in one year, it has been challenging. Personally, it was gratifying to have this performance.”

And what a performance it was. United were on top in the first half, but couldn’t make their opportunities count. That continued into the second half until Mullins ran onto a cross from Paul Arriola for his first goal of the season. Three minutes later, Mullins was once again the recipient of a cross by Arriola, heading in at the back post.

To complete his hat trick, Mullins took advantage of the kind of opportunity that eluded him most of the year. A rebound from a free kick fell right to him, and Mullins, with all the confidence from the first two goals, had no problem finishing off his second career hat trick.

His late free kick was just the cherry on the top of a record-setting performance.

“I think this was coming for me. Maybe not this type of performance, but to get the first one,” said Mullins. “I’ve seen improvements in my performances each game since I came back from injury. It was a long road for me to get back to full sharpness. We got four games left, and I want to keep that progression going. I want to keep playing better.”

In addition, United also got the first tangible contributions from Arriola. Their DP signing has come right into the team and performed well, but just notched his first two assists on Mullins’ first two goals of the season. It’s just what United is looking for going in 2018.

“It’s big in so many ways,” Olsen said of Arriola’s assists. “The guy comes in with hype, and he’s expected to deliver. This is the first real night you saw what he can bring to us. It’s not just with the ball and his service. His movement off the ball is relentless, and that has to be there. You can’t guard that. You can’t take movement out of the game. If you’re constantly making actions, and have quality, you’re going to be a dangerous player in this league.”

And now, it’s all about the last four games of the season, and showing that United are ready to compete in 2018.

“We’re happy for the night for the fans, but we’re not happy with how it’s gone this year,” said the four-goal hero. “We want to show how hungry we are, to show that we’re going to change that in the last four games.”