The suspension had to come to an end, of course. And so it has. Brian Mullan is once again eligible to play this weekend after completing the longest and perhaps most controversial suspension the league has ever seen for an on-field tackle.
But Mullan, a quiet, soft-spoken and almost introverted player even before his rash challenge broke the right leg of Seattle’s Steve Zakuani in late April, isn’t saying much about his return.
In fact, prior to two comments he made to the Colorado Rapids website on Thursday, Mullan had essentially retreated from the public eye for nearly two months. He spoke briefly upon his return to training in early May, but he’s been evasive ever since about the tackle, the ensuing suspension and if the incident will have any lingering effects on him going forward.
"I think maybe stepping back, gave me my — I don't know if passion is the right word — but appreciation for the game,” Mullan told ColoradoRapids.com. “When you're training for something, and you don't get to partake in the end result, it's always hard."
The question everyone is asking now is: After stepping back from the game, can Mullan still play with the style that’s made him a success?
Since coming into MLS in 2001, Brian Mullan has quietly carved out a remarkable career built on hustle and grit, and one adorned with nearly unprecedented triumph. The photo of him celebrating his record-tying fifth MLS Cup — which he won last fall with the Rapids — shows him not hoisting the trophy but instead sitting on it, a slice of pizza in his right hand and a toothy, satisfied grin: I just won another one of these?
He reached that point due to a mix of factors, but probably none more important than his penchant to scrap. Not to fight or to provoke, but instead to make life difficult on the left back or midfielder on the opposing team. Mullan is an undeniably talented player, but the hustle and, yes, physicality in his game is arguably what made him a champion.
Will that hustle and physicality be there on Sunday, when the Rapids take on the Columbus Crew? Can a player snap an opponent’s leg, be dubbed a thug by the league’s most vociferous fanbase, feel the full brunt of the MLS Disciplinary Committee and still play to the level that he used to?
Rapids head coach Gary Smith, for one, thinks Mullan can.
“I’ve sensed over the last 10 days or two weeks that there’s been a real excitement about him,” Smith told MLSsoccer.com this week. “He sees some light at the end of the tunnel to actually get back to the first team. I’m sure there will be one or two cobwebs in terms of sharpness, but all in all, he’s looked absolutely terrific in training.
“We’re looking forward to having him back.”
Mullan’s return will draw mixed reactions throughout the league just the same as his suspension did, likely with polar opposites in Denver and Seattle. Those who demanded he be banned from MLS for life or for as long as Zakuani’s recovery lasted are probably still of the same mind, while those who believe the league’s punishment was too harsh likely still think of him as a scapegoat.
And that seems about right. Because it’s actually difficult to tell exactly where Mullan comes out on it all.
He’s a devoted family man who last summer wanted badly to get out of Houston and raise his children in Colorado, where he and his wife (his high school sweetheart) both grew up and still have family.
He’s relatively shy and, according to his Rapids teammates, neither a distraction nor necessarily a determined vocal leader in the locker room, but rather a proven role player who, as Smith puts it, “epitomizes very much what this league is about and has been about.”
“If you were moving, he’d be the first guy at your house if you needed some help moving your furniture or loading the truck,” Sounders coach Sigi Schmid told MLSsoccer.com. Schmid drafted Mullan in 2001 while the former was in charge of the LA Galaxy. He coached Mullan for two seasons. “Off the field, he’s tremendous. On the field, if somebody hits him, he’s going to hit back.”
Whether it’s from a background as a sensational youth hockey player (he was a member of the Select 15 and Select 17 USA Hockey Teams) or simply his drive to compete in any sport, Mullan’s nature has served him well. Though he’s never been an MLS All-Star or a viable option for the US national team, he’s accomplished something equally respectable in more than a decade in the league.
“If you ask the guys on Colorado, I’m sure they’re happy Brian’s on their team,” said Houston Dynamo coach Dominic Kinnear, who coached Mullan in San Jose and Houston for nearly eight seasons, a span when Mullan won three of his MLS Cups. “But if you asked those guys a couple years ago, they all hated him. He’s one of those guys, because you know exactly what you’re going to get whether you’re with him or against him.
“He’s always been fair, and he’s always been hard,” Kinnear added. “And if things don’t go his way, he tries that much harder.”
Things couldn’t have gone against Mullan any more than they did on April 22. And it’s nearly impossible to forget what happened.
Just minutes into the Colorado-Seattle match that day at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Mullan became visibly upset with a no-call after a challenge from the Sounders’ Tyson Wahl. In response, Mullan jumped up, intent on regaining possession.
It was Zakuani who had picked up the loose ball. Mullan slid in and caught Zakuani’s lower right leg in the wash of his body weight and momentum, instantly breaking Zakuani’s tibia and fibula.
Zakuani’s season was done in a heartbeat. Mullan’s saga was just beginning.
“Brian is an intense competitor, and on the field, he reacts sometimes before his emotions have a chance to settle,” Schmid said. “I think this was one of those occasions. He’s not the only player in the league who does that — I’ve got guys on my team that do that, every coach has guys who do that — but this time it resulted in an unfortunate situation.
“But it was never his intent, and I know Steve knows that as well.”
Others weren’t as kind. After Mullan told ColoradoRapids.com that “it was a tackle that I’ve done hundreds of times, and I’d probably do it again,” he was instantly vilified by fans and pundits alike. The suspension that followed cited “an utter disregard for Zakuani's safety” and insisted that “Mullan’s tackle is the type of play we need to eliminate from our game.”
Both Smith and Kinnear sensed the reaction from some was extreme.
“What I found a little bit disturbing was how a number of public figures, commentators, the press, were quickly on top of it and made it out to be something completely ridiculous and outrageous,” Smith said. “I’m not sure too many people took the time, initially, to think about Brian’s career, what he’d given to the league, how he’d played and what kind of individual he was.”
Said Kinnear: “[The Zakuani] incident, everything that could have gone wrong went wrong. And the aftermath — it just blew everything up.”
Smith, who had his own playing career in England effectively cut short by two broken legs, has probably struggled to understand the severity of the suspension more than Mullan. Smith went public with his discontent even when Mullan himself opted not to file an appeal, took two weeks away from the team to help cope with remorse, and, as Smith put it, took the punishment on the chin.
“Every single weekend we’ll see a challenge that I think we all feel is slightly out of keeping with how the game is played,” Smith said. “And then there will be those challenges that are literally 100th of a second from being nasty. And that’s what we’re talking about here: 100th of a second.”
“I believe the panel saw something that was three times, if not more, than anything else we’ve ever seen,” he added. “Which I find kind of difficult to work out.”
Controversial or not, the suspension is done. The penance is paid. What comes next is more intriguing, considering that a player needs to rediscover his identity and the league’s fans will inevitably have varying reactions on his return.
Will he slide? Will he get stuck in, as they say? Will Brian Mullan be the same player the league has embraced and rewarded for more than a decade?
“I love to win, love to play hard, love to give it all,” Mullan said. “These last two months have given me an even greater appreciation for that. So I'll go out there like I've done my whole career and do whatever the team needs me to do."