By Scott French
Luke Mulholland looks at the path he's taken since coming to America and wonders who's writing the script.
It's been a Hollywood tale for the Tampa Bay Rowdies midfielder, who followed a glorious collegiate career in North Carolina with a Rookie of the Year honor in the USL Pro league, then jumped up to the North American Soccer League and won the first two championships, in 2011 with Minnesota and last year with the Rowdies.
He'd love to make it three for three, but Tampa Bay (4-2-5) sits second in the fall standings, seven points behind the New York Cosmos with just three games to go. It might require a miracle for the Rowdies to reach the Soccer Bowl title game against spring winner Atlanta, and if they're going to pull off something so magical, Mulholland will be the foundation.
The 25-year-old English attacker sets the tone for the Rowdies, and his creativity and consistency is a big reason they're the most explosive team in the NASL, with a league-best 45 goals in 2012 -- 11 more than the second-best total -- and seven games in which they've hit the net at least three times, including a seven-goal effort in their Fall opener back in August.
“Luke is one of those kind of players that is a driving force,” Tampa Bay coach Ricky Hill said. “Instinctively, he enjoys getting forward -- that's a strength. He plays on both sides of the ball, but I think his strengths lie in the ability to recognize space, to attack space with purpose, and when he gets into good positions, he's quite clinical with his one-on-one finishing and his execution in the final third.”
It's added up to eight goals and seven assists over the NASL's first two-tiered season, in which he's played 90 minutes in every game but one and made a difference more often than not. He's contributed a goal or an assist in seven of the 10 second-half matches in which he's appeared, including four of the last five games, with a game-winning penalty kick to beat Fort Lauderdale over the weekend.
“I pride myself on hard-working, I guess,” said Mulholland, who grew up in Preston, England, and came to the U.S., to Wingate University -- an NCAA Division II school just outside of Charlotte -- for the free education and a chance to play in a new environment. “I'm a lot smaller than most of the guys [5-foot-9, 150 pounds], so I have to make up for it with my work ethic. ... I'm not the fastest player in the world, but I can see in my head how I think it's going to work out, so I get in the right spot in the right time.”
It's an instinctive gift gained from growing up with the game in one of soccer's most vibrant locales, and he was playing at a reasonable level -- in the “fifth or sixth level” of the English game, he says -- before coming to America.
“I didn't want to [play in England's lower divisions], so I decided the next-best thing was going to America to get a free education. ... It's been good so far.”
Very good. He was a three-time All-American and four-time All-South Atlantic Conference player at Wingate, where he scored 37 goals with 26 assists in 63 matches over four seasons -- with three NCAA tournament appearances -- then impressed at the United Soccer Leagues' combine and signed with the Wilmington (N.C.) Hammerheads.
He scored in his pro debut and ended up with nine goals and five assists to win the USL Pro's rookie award and help the Hammerheads into the playoffs. When their season was done, Minnesota -- then called NSC Minnesota Stars -- came calling.
He assisted the Stars' lone goal in his NASL debut, a 2-1 loss to the Rowdies, then scored twice in the postseason -- the lone goal to oust Tampa Bay in an opening-round matchup, then the second of three Minnesota goals to beat the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the two-legged final.
Winning the championship “was the icing on the cake, as they say,” Mulholland said. “I was still on a high from winning the Rookie of the Year with Wilmington, and then when Minnesota wanted to sign me for the rest of the season, I felt good I'd caught someone's attention.
“So I went there knowing that how I played in Wilmington got me to Minnesota, so I flew there on a Monday, played on a Tuesday, we ended up losing but I had an assist in my first game. And from then, I just felt comfortable and played well, and going in there for just two months and getting in the playoffs and winning the whole championship was magic, I think.”
The good times were just starting. He had rejected an option year when he signed in Minnesota, just in case he wasn't happy there, so he became a free agent as he celebrated with his Stars teammates. Hill and the Rowdies had taken notice and worked to lure him to Florida.
“He was the reason why -- partly the reason why -- we were knocked out [of the playoffs in our] first season,” Hill said. “Even then, he caught the eye because his movement, his willingness to run with or without the ball, he caused defenders a lot of unrest in terms of not being static for long periods and then being very elusive. We thought, looking at our squad, he would fit in perfectly to what we had, and he had a great year last year.”
Mulholland scored five goals while starting 25 matches, and his imprint was important as the Rowdies went 12-7-9 to finish second, then knocked off Carolina in the NASL semifinals -- Mulholland scoring the decisive goal in the second leg, a 3-3 draw -- and overcame a two-goal, first-leg deficit to knock off his old club in the final.
“I remember the first leg of the final at their place, losing 2-0,” Mulholland said. “The way that Minnesota celebrated with the fans, they over-celebrated, and I think as soon as we got to the locker room, we said, 'OK, it's halftime, we have plenty of time to turn it around. And them guys are celebrating outside like they won it.' ”
It sparked greater desire in the Rowdies, who won the second leg at home, 3-1, to force a penalty-kick shootout for the trophy.
“It went to penalties, and I had the first one [for Tampa Bay] and made it,” Mulholland said. “I was pretty happy about that. I was just happy I didn't miss. ... Definitely a great night.”
Every championship feels great, but winning with Tampa Bay was special.
“Each one is definitely as good as the last,” Mulholland said. “I played for, like, nine games with Minnesota, not a long journey. It was definitely sweeter to win the championship here at Tampa, playing every game. And being the only player to win championships back-to-back felt good.”
The Rowdies have been solid again this year, with Mulholland and Bulgarian forward Georgi Hristov leading an attack that has grown more dynamic with the September acquisition of Zimbabwean forward Lucky Mkosana on loan from the USL Pro's Harrisburg (Pa.) City Islanders.
Tampa Bay finished fourth during the NASL Spring campaign, just three points behind Atlanta, and beat three-time defending champion Seattle Sounders en route to the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup. The Rowdies started strong when the second half kicked off, going unbeaten in their eight games (3-0-5) and had a two-goal halftime lead Sept. 29 at New York, where a victory would have left them a point behind the Cosmos.
New York rallied for a 4-3 victory, and Fort Lauderdale knocked them off, 2-1, a week later. Two bad halves -- the second in New York and the first in Fort Lauderdale -- have left them requiring something very special to keep the hopes alive.
“Until it's mathematically impossible, of course have to believe that we can catch them,” said Hill, whose team finishes up with games Saturday against San Antonio, Oct. 27 at Edmonton and Nov. 2 against Minnesota. “Our objective is to add points to our total irrespective of what the Cosmos do. We can't influence that one iota, but we can influence our side of things and get as many points as we can before the end of the season, and if we do that and the Cosmos are good enough to take the necessary points and finish ahead of us, then we will congratulate them and wish them well in the final, but at the same time, we couldn't have done any more than what we did.”
That's how Mulholland sees it, too.
“I think we can still finish top,” he said. “But we need a couple of other teams to do us some favors. So instead of being worried about the points, we need to take each game as it comes and just worry about that one game.”
Scott French is contributing Editor of www.lasoccernews.com
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