The New England Revolution’s offense has finally turned the corner over the past two games with a combined 30 shots and seven goals. The biggest reason? Rookie Patrick Mullins.
Heading into the 2014 season, the leading question mark for the Revolution was how they would replace Juan Agudelo up top in the team’s 4-5-1 formation. Agudelo joined the Revolution in May last season from Chivas USA and transformed the team’s struggling offense, but headed off to Europe in the offseason.
With Agudelo’s ability to play with his back to goal, hold up the ball and spray passes back to the midfield, he was the perfect complement to the club’s creative attacking midfielders. His departure left New England with a big hole to fill in the offseason and the club traded for Teal Bunbury from Sporting Kansas City to help address the issue.
Bunbury had proven he could score goals in MLS, but is a different player from Agudelo. While Agudelo is comfortable with his back to goal, Bunbury is better facing goal, playing quick combinations going forward. In a lone striker role, those qualities aren’t what the Revolution midfield needed to thrive and it showed as the team was held scoreless in four of its first five games.
There was a little improvement over the next few games – aided by some penalty kick calls – but it was clear the offense still wasn’t firing on all cylinders, as shown with an unsuccessful attempt at starting Jerry Bengtson in the lone striker role.
The 11th overall pick of the 2014 MLS draft, Mullins got a start in the season opener, but was unable to make an impact in 45 minutes as a winger. He couldn’t make the game day 18 after that.
That all changed on May 3rd when head coach Jay Heaps turned to Mullins to start as the lone striker on a difficult trip to face a revamped Toronto FC. Where Bunbury and Bengtson had struggled with the role, Mullins thrived. The rookie looked strong with his back to goal, won eight aerial duels and was fouled six times, leading the match in both categories. He also managed three shots, including a brilliant strike from distance that knotted the score at one, and an effort that was blocked by a handball leading to the game winning penalty kick for the match’s final 2-1 margin.
Mullins opened the scoring again the next week against Seattle. The goal may not have been as flashy, but Mullins involvement in the holdup play up top undoubtedly had a huge impact on the stunning 5-0 score line against the Sounders.
“(The last few weeks, Mullins’ hold-up play has been) Huge,” said Heaps. “I think that’s one thing, when we’re really playing well, we have someone that can at least get us an outlet ball, a vertical ball. And he holds it up well and it allows guys like Lee (Nguyen), Daigo (Kobayashi), Diego (Fagundez) and Teal (Bunbury) to read off of that.”
And Mullins is doing well in stats indicative of a good hold-up striker. Per 90 minutes, Mullins leads Bunbury and Bengtson in both aerial duels won (31.25% – compared to 29.73% for Bunbury and 22.2% for Bengtson) – a solid number considering Mullins is often tasked with winning the ball against multiple defenders – and fouls suffered (2.40 – compared to 1.20 for Bunbury and 1.99 for Bengtson). The rookie striker isn’t far behind Agudelo’s per 90 numbers last season of 36.11% of aerial duels won and 2.56 fouls suffered per game.
“I think every time we step on the field we want to make sure we hold the ball up up top and make good runs in behind on the wings,” said Mullins. “I thought we did that really well [on Sunday against Seattle]. Obviously with Diego (Fagundez) and Teal (Bunbury) getting some great goals around the outside, and as a center forward with the one up top, and you got two big guys up there you got to make sure you hold your own and battle for everything and I thought I did my best to do that today.”
It shouldn’t be a surprise that Mullins’ strong play helped Diego Fagundez finally score his first goals of the season last weekend. The 19-year-old thrived playing off Agudelo last season and his play has noticeably improved since Mullin’s emergence.
“Mullins has been great,” said Fagundez. “He’s been holding the ball off, which is what we want and he’s fighting up top. It doesn’t matter who he plays against, he wants to play and it’s showing on the field.”
If Mullins can keep up that play, there’s every reason to believe the Revolution’s current five game unbeaten stretch will continue to grow as the MLS season winds towards the World Cup break. First in that stretch is a trip to Philadelphia to face the struggling Union, a team the Revolution lost 1-0 to in their second match of the season. Mullins’ didn’t make the game day 18 in that loss, but it’s a safe bet he’ll play a huge role in this one.