As D.C. United visited Columbus Crew SC and MAPFRE Stadium on Saturday, two former National Premier Soccer League standouts suited up for the Black and Red.
Forward Patrick Mullins and defender Kofi Opare are integral to the 2018 campaign for D.C. and have racked up accolades during their short time in Major League Soccer. The two were crucial for the short-handed away side that was missing five players due to international duty.
The forward is a former member of his hometown New Orleans Jesters of the NPSL. The club filled his time in college while away from the University of Maryland, where Mullins won two MAC Herman trophies. Mullins was also a two-time All-American and a Soccer America Player of the Year. He was responsible for 47 goals and 35 assists in his time in college.
Most college athletes don’t get the opportunity to return home for the summer like Mullins did, and he had the extra honor of playing in front of his home crowd.
“I think it’s a tight-knit local community, which is exactly what the NPSL looks for,” Mullins said. “I think they look for clubs that have a dedicated fan base, check that with New Orleans, clubs that have a dedicated mission of how they’re trying to go about things in their partnership with the league and they do a great job of that down there as well. The cherry on top for me was developing players.”
Mullins’ defining moment came last season on Sept. 23 against the San Jose Earthquakes. He accomplished a feat the likes of which MLS hadn’t seen before, as he scored a record four times in a 31-minute span during the first half. Those goals earned his team a victory and pushed Mullins into a tie for D.C.’s Golden Boot, despite an oft-injured season.
“I think I’m in a great place right now physically,” Mullins said. “Obviously you can’t control everything, but everything that I can, I am. And I learned a lot from that last year. My body feels great and my confidence is high, so hopefully I can turn in some good performances on the field.”
Twenty-three goals have come for Mullins in his time in MLS. This season, he has adopted a bit of a closer role, entering with fresh legs late in games to try to provide a scoring spark. Mullins entered the match as a substitution in the 46th minute and made his presence known in Crew SC’s 3-1 victory.
“It’s unique,” Mullins said. “There’s not many roles like it in sports, to come off the bench in a soccer match. I think at times you need to bring, first and foremost an energy, so I try to do that every time I come in. And then also being aware of the game situation and what I can I bring, the value whether it’s to help kill the game off or like tonight, trying to get some chances and trying to get us back in the game.”
Opare acts as Mullins’ counterpart on defense. A product of the University of Michigan and Detroit City FC of the NPSL, his hard-nosed style comes as a result of the stops he’s made along the way in his soccer career. Born in Ghana, Opare has spent time in South Africa, Canada, New Jersey, and Los Angeles before landing in the nation’s capital.
“Every place I’ve been to has welcomed me,” Opare said. “So, I can’t give you a one answer of ‘this is home.’ But, every place I’ve lived, I’ve had an enjoyable experience.”
Opare’s experience in his last four seasons with D.C. United has yielded 52 starts. Last season was the defender’s best. He started 25 matches and tallied two goals, an assist and 32 shots. He was also dangerous on set pieces, finishing second in headed shots amongst all players in the league.
He finished 2017 by being named D.C. United’s Defensive Player of the Year and being nominated for the MLS Comeback Player of the Year award. Opare said that his understanding of the game has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years. His only goal is to win the MLS Cup.
While at Michigan, Opare appeared in 76 matches and was named to both the Big Ten All-Freshman Team and the All-Big Ten Second Team. Detroit City FC helped to keep him fit for collegiate action and he got to spend time in an iconic city in the U.S.
“It was good,” Opare said. “Detroit has some hardships, but it’s good to see, especially the past few years, that the city is starting to grow. It’s starting to get back to where it once was as a dominant city in the U.S., economically speaking. It’s good to kind of have a soccer team there that can help to build the culture.”
Opare looks back on his collegiate years and chooses to reflect more on how he’s changed as a human being than as a soccer player. Those four years helped him to become more independent, learning how to manage time and responsibilities.
For younger players that aspire to be where Opare is, his advice is two-fold.
“I would say first and foremost, especially if you’re looking at playing soccer at the highest level, A, you have to enjoy yourself,” Opare said. “You have to make sure what you do is enjoyable and it brings you joy. Second of all, just push yourself as far as you can. Don’t let anything hinder you or stop you from going as hard as you can.”