By TIM FONTENAULT
FOXBOROUGH, Massachusetts – New England Revolution forward Patrick Mullins, the MAC Hermann Trophy winner as college soccer’s best player in 2012 and 2013, came off after 45 minutes in his MLS debut on March 8, and he rode the bench for the next seven matches.
Over the last four matches, however, Mullins has been on fire, and with a goal against D.C. United in a 2-1 win Saturday night at Gillette Stadium, he now has four goals in four games.
“I believe in myself,” Mullins said. “As a forward, you want to score every game you come into. Like I said, I think for me I’m focusing on being a complete player, not just one that gets the goals. That’s something I feel I can add to the team, but there’s a bigger role I have to play.”
Only one other MLS rookie has ever scored in four straight matches. Damani Ralph, a second-round pick out of UConn, did so in 2003 for the Chicago Fire.
“It’s pretty good,” Revolution head coach Jay Heaps said of the streak. “The goals are awesome, they’re kind of bonus for how we want to play. And I think Patrick does an excellent job pressuring, holding the ball up and allowing players to go forward.
“It wasn’t pretty (Saturday night). I thought D.C. did a nice job sitting their two defensive midfielders, and they won every second ball. They shielded their back four really well, so Patrick had to earn it tonight, and I thought he did a great job, finding the little gaps, holding it when he could and finishing off a chance.”
Since losing to their rival from the nation’s capital on April 5, the Revolution have been the hottest team in the league, taking 19 out of 21 possible points from seven matches while establishing a five-point lead over D.C. and defending champion Sporting Kansas City at the top of the Eastern Conference.
In those seven matches, New England has outscored opponents 19-6, 10 of those goals coming in the two matches that preceded Saturday’s win – a 5-0 rout of Seattle and a 5-3 victory at Philadelphia.
For as in form as Mullins has been, Diego Fagundez has been equal to the task, scoring the night winner on Saturday night, an opportunity created as D.C. goalkeeper Bill Hamid tried to knock a Teal Bunbury cross away from the goal. Fagundez now has four goals in New England’s last three matches.
New England struggled for goals early on in 2014, scoring only twice in the five matches leading into the current unbeaten streak. Both Mullins and Fagundez, a veteran on the team despite being only 19 (three years younger than Mullins), credit the turn in fortune in front of net to the chemistry they have developed between themselves.
“I think we’re working good with each other, and you can even add Teal (Bunbury) in there,” said Fagundez, who assisted Mullins’ goal. “I think those three are definitely working a lot better than when we started. And I think more confidence is going to be going up, and the more goals that come, it’s going to be between us three because we’re moving off the ball and we’re making good runs.”
Confidence and chemistry have been critical for Mullins, who has admitted to being like any rookie in that he has had difficulty transitioning from college to MLS. Having players like Fagundez and Bunbury on either side of him in the attack has proved helpful.
“It’s huge, obviously,” Mullins said. “Tonight wasn’t a five-goal explosion, but when we get the ball at our feet, we have a good connection. It’s kind of one of those, you know, if the guy isn’t even looking at you, he still knows where you are on the field. It’s great having, especially in this system where you’re interchanging, in and out, me, Teal and Diego, it’s great having that kind of dynamic attack.”
Mullins scored 47 goals in 92 career games for Maryland, standing out in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the nation’s premier conference, night in and night out. Despite being a projected top pick, Mullins fell all the way to 11th in this year’s SuperDraft, becoming New England’s second pick of the first round.
The drop shocked many people, but New England seemed to be confident that he would still be there, as they grabbed defender Steve Neumann with the fourth pick overall. Luckily for Heaps, he was there, and the coach has had the confidence to work Mullins in amidst New England’s hot streak, knowing that regardless of what level he is playing at, Mullins knows how to put the ball in the net.
“(It’s) instincts,” Heaps said. “I think he’s got great awareness of where he needs to be, where the ball is. He never goes outside the 18. He finds really good spaces in there. I think you have to have a knack for it. It’s not something you can just, ‘Oh, go score goals.’ I think he’s done it his whole life, and he’s just now finding he’s good enough to do it at this level.”