FROM NPSL TO MLS: PATRICK MULLINS
Patrick Mullins has had some astounding moments and others not so great, hardly a unique introduction to professional soccer.
Life as a rookie in Major League Soccer — in any league, really — is largely about adaptation, about growing as a player and adding to your arsenal, grasping as many of the nuances that make such a difference at the game’s highest levels.
It’s been a thrill for the 22-year-old forward, who came to the New England Revolution following a glorious career at the University of Maryland, where he scored 47 goals, 36 of them as a junior and senior, when he was a two-time first-team All-American and became the fourth man to win two Hermann Trophies as the nation’s top collegiate player.
The Revolution took him with the 11th overall selection in January’s MLS SuperDraft, and he’s been on the field in 16 of their 23 league games, scoring four vital goals.
“Soccer is a game, when you get an opportunity, you need to make the most of it,” Mullins said. “That’s just something I pretty much tell myself every day. What I was to do is, I believe in the skills I have, and when opportunities present themselves or I create those opportunities, I want to take full advantage.”
That’s been Mullins’ credo all along, and he’s used his experiences — leading Jesuit High School in New Orleans to two Louisiana state titles, reaching two NCAA College Cup final fours at Maryland, and in three summers with the National Premier Soccer League’s New Orleans Jesters — to build the foundation for what he hopes, and many expect, will be a long and fruitful professional career.
This first pro season has been a worthy classroom for the 6-foot-1 left-footer, who started the Revs’ opener — in front of friends and family — sat on the bench for the next seven games, then started a four-game scoring streak that helped New England (8-12-3) to four successive wins and a monthlong stay atop the Eastern Conference standings.
“I’ve had some ups and downs, as far as me getting playing time, and also with our team successes as well,” Mullins said. “I feel like I’ve taken positives from it, I feel like I’ve learned lessons each day, I’ve got into the stadium and I think I’ve improved, and all I really wanted to do at the beginning of the season was get better every day as a professional. I think being in with the guys here and playing in MLS has definitely helped me do that.”
Maryland was expert preparation — Sasho Cirvoski’s Terrapins are among the nation’s elite college programs, averaging more than 15 wins a year, winning two NCAA titles and reaching the quarterfinals or better nine times over the last 12 seasons while sending more than a dozen players to MLS — but Mullins also gives a lot of credit to New Orleans Jesters coach Kenny Farrell.
“Coming up through the college ranks and playing NPSL in the summers and even PDL back in the day, I think those were good preparation for me for the type of playing style the MLS is,” Mullins said. “It’s a very physical, fast-paced league.”
That suits Mullins, who has all the tools a striker needs.
Farrell saw that when Mullins first joined him for the 2011 season.
“He was a great presence with the team,” Farrell said. “Not too vocal, but leads through his performance and his dedication and his application of the game. There was no doubt in my mind that he was going to move on to better things after this.”
It was a most rewarding experience for Mullins, who spent three seasons with the Jesters, including their first NPSL campaign a year ago.
“I have only great things to talk about with Kenny Farrell down there and the Jesters,” Mullins said. “Kenny, he did well. He took me in and, I think, provided an environment where I could keep progressing game by game in the summers and play a few games, which I think is important as well. I definitely had a great experience with him.”
With Mullins the Jesters went 4-4-2 last year to finish fourth in the NPSL’s Southeast Division.
“It was, obviously, our first year in the league,” Mullins said. “We were figuring out a little bit how the league works with the travel schedule and adjusting to the style of play and the teams in the league. Kenny and the Jesters have high standards, but for a first year, I think we did all right.
“For me, I wanted to be successful with them, but the big thing for me was to get something out of it individually, and I felt like I was able to do that. I felt the guys down there on the team were focused to get better, and that’s all I really wanted out of it.”
Mullins was able to fine-tune his craft and build his fitness and sharpness heading into the fall college season.
“He’s very, very good in the final third, taking people on and creating chances, not only for himself, but for other players,” said Farrell, an Irishman who played for Dublin’s Shelbourne FC before heading to New Orleans nearly two decades ago. “He’s a goalscorer. He’s a player that gets into the box, he’s a player who creates chances, he gets you going forward. His first touch [always] takes him forward, he knows how to combine with midfielders and link up with other players and get himself into dangerous positions. He knows running at players, and he loves taking players on, making things happen. …
“As a player playing for me, perfect. Really couldn’t ask for more.”
Mullins said the travel required was good preparation for MLS.
“You can have quick games back-to-back, and as far as just how chaotic games can come at you,” he said. “You just need to be ready and be focused, and have your mind and body ready to go, and I think those are valuable lessons to take into the pro level.”
Playing for the Jesters meant something special for Mullins, who grew up in New Orleans but, with his family, had to leave the city after Hurricane Katrina. The club has added a youth component, to grow local talent, and Mullins enjoyed taking part in that.
“That was huge [getting to play at home],” he said. “In the summer [as a college player], you really just need to go somewhere where you can keep improving and stay fit, and being able to go home, having home-cooked meals, being with my mom and dad in New Orleans — definitely fond memories.”
He keeps up with the Jesters, he says, and Farrell believes it.
“I think he wore his jersey with great pride, and you could tell in his game,” Farrell said. “[The Jesters are] in his heart. I can sense it’s in his heart, and I think it always will be.”
Mullins started the Revs’ opener this year, at Houston, a reasonable drive from New Orleans, so he had his own rooting section. He played just a half in a 4-0 loss, then didn’t get off the bench again until May 3.
“It was great to get my first start and debut down in Houston, and I actually had some friends and family that were able to attend, and that was very special for me,” Mullins said. “But then, after that, it took a turn where I wasn’t playing as much. I think that was equally as important for me.
“I think that’s what being a professional is about, handling the ups and downs and coming back stronger and learning through those processes, and it showed. I had some success over in May.”
Mullins had extraordinary success in May.
New England coach Jay Heaps gave him another start at Toronto FC, and this time Mullins impressed. He scored his first pro goal in the 24th minute, a shot to the top corner to pull the Revs even, the drew the penalty kick in the closing minutes that Lee Nguyen converted for a 2-1 victory.
Eight days later, he knocked home a 14th-minute rebound to start the Revolution toward a stunning 5-0 mauling of Seattle, and he scored again the following week — the fifth Revs goal, from a give-and-go with Diego Fagundez, in a 5-3 win at Philadelphia — and the week after that, the opener in a 2-1 win over D.C. United.
Mullins also tallied the decisive third goal in a 3-2 U.S. Open Cup fourth-round victory over the USL Pro’s Richmond Kickers in mid-June.
“Patrick’s developing well, doing a nice job in the attack,” said Heaps, a former New England defender. “He’s a good young player in this league.”
The Revs hit a horrid stretch in MLS following the D.C. game, losing their next eight — Mullins started the first six league of those and has played in each of the five games after that, with just one start. New England is 1-9-1 starting May 31.
The team has kept a positive outlook, Mullins said, and with good reason. Despite the slump, the Revolution are sixth in the East, just one point out of a playoff spot.
It’s been another good learning experience.
“I definitely learned that each game is something different,” Mullins said. “I think on the streak of losses we had, there were results that could have been different, but in a tough league, the little things really count, and those can determine wins from losses.
“I think I learned that real quick, that in the summer months and when things are tough on the team, you need that extra grit and determination to get out of it, and staying together as a team, I think we’ve done that well. It’s important to make sure we stay together, and I think we are, and we’re still in a position to make a run for the playoffs.”