The best practice to create the next U.S. Soccer star has been a question mark for several decades. With European academies, American academies, and college teams available to highly skilled youth, it appears that there’s no single correct approach to developing highly skilled players in the U.S.
Soccer culture in the U.S. is in a period of great growth and each of the top players in the U.S. have different backgrounds and experiences, proving that as of now, there is no “best” way to produce a great player. An unquestionable truth as of this moment, though, is that the college experience is a sought-after one with a record of producing quality players. Utilizing this experience in tandem with playing in the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) has become a tried and true method. This is an approach which worked remarkably well for two-time MAC Herman Trophy winner Patrick Mullins, who also starred for the New Orleans Jesters of the NPSL.
The MAC Herman Trophy is annually presented to the best college male and female soccer player, and Mullins has the honor of being the fourth male to ever earn it in back-to-back seasons. His incredible college career boasted several tournament victories, a national title game appearance, and an outstanding goal ratio of 47 goals in 84 games.
Sasho Cirovski, head coach of the University of Maryland’s men’s soccer team, raved about Mullins’ contributions to his program.
“When I build my stadium, I’m going to build a bronze statue of that young man. He’s one of the best guys on Earth. He is as good as it gets. He is a very tough player as we’ve seen throughout his career. He’s a special person and has represented our program well.”
Patrick Mullins’ career with the University of Maryland is nearly unparalleled and he attributes that success in part to his time in the NPSL with the New Orleans Jesters.
“I think in college you play with some very good players, but there’s definitely a difference from training with guys your own age and training with some guys who have either been through professional environments or semi-professional environments. I think it’s very valuable at that college age to train, to compete, and to play with players like that.”
Mullins seems incredibly grateful for his time in the NPSL.
“It was definitely a great addition to my development that I got at the University of Maryland. That day-to-day development was probably the most critical for me at that time in the NPSL. It was an addition that I definitely am more than happy that I did and I think that really benefited me.”
But more than an opportunity to develop, Mullins also says his time playing for a club from his hometown of New Orleans brought incredible pride.
“The first thing I was, was excited to be home and playing in front of people that I grew up playing with and supporting me throughout college.”
In his hometown, on summer break from his time at University of Maryland, Mullins helped lead the New Orleans Jesters, a team known for being a pipeline to the pros. Fellow Jester Andrew Tarbell, now a goalkeeper with the San Jose Earthquakes, was the first NPSL player to earn a Generation adidas contract.
Each regular season was about two and a half months long and taught Mullins about the difficulties of playing with a professional team.
“One of the things I always remember, vividly, from my time in the NPSL, was traveling for games. I think that definitely, being the only team in Louisiana, was a more strenuous travel schedule than probably other teams throughout the league. I think that was good preparation of what it’s like and a little snippet of what it’s like being a professional and the demands that travel can have on your body. You see that in youth soccer, but when it’s at the professional level, those little details in terms of the proper rest and recovery in-between games. Maybe it’s not the most perfect schedule in the world, but you have to deal with it, you have to go out and still perform on the field. The introduction to those types of things at a college age was incredibly valuable.”
Mullins had a unique experience in traveling with his team, recalling an 18-hour bus ride from New Orleans to El Paso, playing a game midway through the trip and playing two games in three days. Experiences like these may not be sought after, but they helped him grow in great ways and understand how to treat his body during a recovery process.
More than just learning about how to handle traveling with a first team, Mullins also learned quickly about playing with different styles. He spoke highly about how the NPSL presents a wider range of players and experiences. This provided him with a challenge, one that forced him to learn quickly.
“NPSL games were a little more tactical and you’re dealing with players of great experience. It takes a little longer to break players like that down as an opponent than it would an average college team. I think that comes directly from experience and that’s something college players are still developing.”
On the development of his in-game intelligence, Mullins attributes his growth directly to his time in the NPSL in preparing him against opponents with more experience, saying he learned multiple lessons in the league, lessons that may not have been learned in college games.
“The experience I had with the coach, Kenny Farrell, I think he was very helpful to me in terms of giving me a different perspective from what I was getting at my college and different in terms of fitting into a team with players who are very experienced and some ways to adjust in a locker room like that and find ways to assert yourself in a team and make an impact.”
The transition of playing with the NPSL and then with his college team worked out perfectly for Mullins, saying it helped him to stay in shape and even get some games in through the summer, ensuring he could maintain game sharpness in between the spring and fall.
“It sort of fell perfectly into how the college schedule works as a college athlete,” Mullins quickly remarked.
Mullins didn’t just utilize the NPSL to have remarkable success in college, he also had great success with the Jesters as well, scoring 12 goals in 21 games and making a major impact on his team.
Since playing with the New Orleans Jesters, Mullins has played on three different MLS teams alongside international stars like Jermaine Jones, David Villa, Andrea Pirlo, and Frank Lampard. He recently moved to D.C. United, playing in the same region he played in college, and has become the lead striker in what was a high octane offense in 2016. With eight goals in 14 regular season games, he earned himself a long-term deal and is likely to be a star fixture in the D.C. line-up for years to come.
While players of Mullins’ caliber in the U.S. all have different routes to success, Mullins has paved the way for a desirable and successful playing situation through his time playing for his hometown New Orleans club in the NPSL. With an easy transition between college seasons and opportunities to learn lessons not easily found, it’s likely that more players of high quality will utilize local NPSL clubs in the future to refine their craft and jump onto the pipeline to the pros.