DC United hail Mullins' transformative effect: "He shapes the game for us"

WASHINGTON – D.C. United forward Patrick Mullins believes his previous playoff experiences have taught him the key to MLS postseason success: Harness your energy for things that you do well.

After playing a key reserve role in New England’s run to the 2014 MLS Cup final as a rookie, Mullins will likely make his first postseason start when United welcome the Montreal Impact to RFK Stadium in Thursday’s Eastern Conference Knockout Round encounter (7:30 pm ET, UniMás, TSN1, TSN5, RDS2).

Whether or not he builds on his eight goals and two assists in 14 games since joining D.C. from New York City FC in July, his mere presence has United liking their chances in the Audi 2016 MLS Cup Playoffs.

“I feel like the team is better with him on the field. It’s everyone,” said defender and captain Bobby Boswell. “Everyone loves the goalscoring. That stuff is easy to see on paper. But the stuff that he’s doing off the ball, getting in the right spots and laying off balls in our half, that kind of stuff is priceless for me.”

Mullins’ form in front of goal is one of several elements behind United’s undeniable improvement since his mid-season arrival.

Take Mullins’ goals and assists away and United would have still scored 24 times in 14 matches, a major step forward from the 19 goals they netted in their first 20.

“The way he shapes the game for us, and is relentless in his pressure and savvy about when to go and when to hold, and keep us compact from front to back, whether we’re pressing or dropping off, has been a real difference in the second half of the season,” coach Ben Olsen said. “That part has been undersold or under-covered.”

While Luciano Acosta’s quality influenced Olsen to switch from a 4-4-2 to a 4-1-4-1 formation, the coach's tactics have generally valued forwards who can handle defensive legwork.

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It’s one reason showcase 2012 signing Hamdi Salihi failed to stick around despite scoring 0.57 goals per 90 minutes. And it’s why Eddie Johnson was so enticing in 2014 despite his reputation as a disruptive locker-room presence.

Although it wasn’t easy to pry Mullins from NYCFC, Olsen says the striker's potential was irresistible.

“Was it a long conversation? Yeah,” Olsen said. “It was weeks of discussions with New York [City] and within our group, and making sure he was a good fit. But we were so familiar with him being at [the University of] Maryland and training with us and watching him constantly in the college ranks, and understanding how many goals he scored, the big games that he was in. It was a good move.”

Boswell says there’s no one player Mullins’ style reminds him of exactly, and uses the words “unorthodox,” “unique” and “special” in a string of a couple sentences. The closest fit may be Boswell’s former Houston Dynamo teammate and now-retired US international Brian Ching.

“He’s willing to do the work on both sides of the ball. You don’t see a lot of forwards that are willing to do that,” Boswell said. “But he’s also pretty good in front of the goal. He’s taken the chances that are given to him. And I’m sure if you ask him … he’d say he could probably have a goal more than he does a game.”

Mullins doesn’t see any direct equivalents, either. He did reiterate his desire to be more like two-time MLS Golden Boot winnerBradley Wright-Phillips – and not just because of the Englishman's prolific scoring.

“Top to bottom, he does everything well that you want for a forward,” Mullins said of the New York Red Bulls star. “He holds the ball up, he runs the channels, he can head, he can finish, he can combine. I can’t think of many more things that you need from your forward. So, there’s definitely things that I’ve picked up from him and I like, and I’ve seen him use through the league.”