Patrick Mullins played college soccer for the University of Maryland, arguably the best program of this millennium. He won back-to-back Hermann Trophies, he dominated the toughest conference in the country, he went to the College Cup and scored three goals in two games. He switched from midfield to forward and scored goals by the dozen while still retaining his creative chops.
He came up big in big games. He took a beating in the trenches against college defenders who often blow right through "ultra-aggressive" and land on "assault and battery," but he still found time to flare out to the flanks and use that cultured left foot of his to find his fellow attackers hitting seams that he'd helped open with his movement. He looked to me like a complete, if unspectacular, soccer player.
But before the 2014 SuperDraft, all I kept hearing about was what Mullins couldn't do. Is he big and strong enough to hold the ball up with his back to goal? Does he have the top-end speed to get past static defenses? Is he a No. 9 for real, or will he have to find a new position?
Two years later, it's pretty clear to me that Mullins -- who dropped to 11th in that draft before being snatched by the New England Revolution -- is indeed a No. 9 for real, yet still manages to be a multifaceted attacking threat. He runs the channels, he creates with his back to goal, he is dangerous on set pieces and he does stuff like this:
First off: That's a level of back-pressure New York City FC's front line has rarely offered this season. One of the big struggles that team has had is in closing down space deep in the midfield, and because of that they're easy to build against. The addition of Mullins at halftime of last week's 2-1 loss at FC Dallas somewhat mitigated that (especially on this play).
Secondly, his vision and touch to put Ned Grabavoy through were very good. Beyond "very good" was his timing, which was special. Too often we see forwards try to force that play early. More often we see forwards wait too long and let the best gaps close:
In his 2,200 MLS minutes, split between New England and NYCFC, Mullins has 9 goals and 6 assists (one of those coming in MLS Cup). He's also drawn a penalty and set one up. He back-pressures at a high level, he runs the channels, he combines with David Villa.
To put Mullins' numbers in perspective: Octavio Rivero has 10 goals and 3 assists in 2,264 minutes this season; Will Bruin has 10g/2a in 1,887; and Dom Dwyer has 9g/2a in 2,080. Mullins is rarely mentioned in the same breath as those guys, but perhaps he should be. Perhaps he's being underrated once again, as he was coming out of college despite all his success and accolades, and as he was ahead of last year's expansion draft.
I'd submit that NYCFC's core of young attacking talent is underrated as well. Mullins, Kwadwo Poku (4g/7a in 879 minutes), Tommy McNamara (5g/3a in 1,168 minutes) and Mix Diskerud are all aged 23 or 24, and three of the four have had genuinely productive seasons (Diskerud admits he hasn't been up to snuff, but anyone who says he lacks the talent to be a very good MLS player is pushing a foolish agenda). All four fit naturally around Villa, the true cornerstone of the team.
Bring them all back, convince Angelino and Shay Facey to stick around, finally get Khiry Shelton healthy, and that's seven starting-caliber players coming into the 2016 season aged 19-through-25 for what is otherwise the league's oldest team. Bear in mind that going young pays off in MLS, as Nos. 1-through-3 in the league PPG table boast three of the league's youngest rosters.
There hasn't been much reason for optimism around NYCFC lately, and Wednesday's game against Toronto FC (7:30 pm ET; ESPN2, WatchESPN, ESPN Deportes in US, TSN, RDS2 in Canada) has all the hallmarks of another lesson in humility. The Reds are going to score, and there's not much to suggest the hosts will know how to stop them.
Yet there are solutions on the other end of the field for the Light Blues, for now and for the years ahead. The talk is of aged and ageing superstars, but the future will be built by a solid and underrated young core, led by their perpetually underrated No. 9 who just keeps producing.