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Mullins trying to make the most of his rare starts for the Crew

The striker has struggled to start games with the Crew. But with Zardes out, he’s getting the opportunities he was looking for.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at Colorado Rapids Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Since Gyasi Zardes was traded to Columbus Crew SC prior to the 2018 season, it has been hard for whoever is behind him at striker to get opportunities since he has been one of the team’s key pieces and rarely misses games due to injury or suspension. That lack of chances has been Patrick Mullins’ life with the Black & Gold for the last 11 months.

With the starting striker out for at least a few weeks as he represents the United States Men’s National Team in the 2019 Gold Cup, Mullins is seeing his long-awaited playing time as the 27-year-old forward started two matches in a row for the first time since his arrival against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds and Atlanta United in the U.S. Open Cup and seems in position to get another first-team selection this Sunday, when the Crew hosts Sporting Kansas City at MAPFRE Stadium for MLS play.

“Personally, I’ve enjoyed it,” Mullins told Massive Report. “When you’re a professional player, you want to be a part of big matches, you want to be a part of what takes place on the weekends. Everyone gets to contribute throughout the week in training and make sure the team is prepared to do their part, but not everyone gets in between the lines in the 90 minutes on the weekend, so I definitely don’t take that for granted and I had a smile on my face playing.”

Since Mullins was acquired via a trade from the D.C. United in July 2018, the forward has played in 19 MLS matches for the Crew, scoring one goal, but only four of them were starts. For a player who started at least 10 matches in each of his first four seasons in the league, this could be hard to accept, but that’s not how Mullins takes it.

The striker, who also played for the New England Revolution and New York City FC in MLS, takes pleasure in competing daily at the team’s training field and is confident that the hard work put in over the week always pays off in the weekend, regardless of how many minutes he gets to play.

“I love competition and that’s we have here week in, week out,” he remarked. “Gyasi has done very well for this club since he arrived and there’s no denying, he’s showing that, he found the back of the net and had great performances. But that’s separate from competition during the week. He’s going to compete and I’m going to compete and we both wish the best for this team and that’s the main thing.”

In his two recent starts with the Crew, Mullins stayed on the field for 141 minutes and has been relatively effective for the team, firing four shots on target and drawing a penalty kick that Pedro Santos missed against the Riverhounds.

For head coach Caleb Porter, Mullins has been helping the team in a lot of different ways and he believes that once he scores that elusive first goal, his full potential will be unleashed.

“Gyasi is out, so he’s the next in line and I think it’s about getting into a rhythm for him. Like any striker, he needs reps and confidence and he needs that first goal and kind of get that monkey off his back,” Porter reflected. “We’ll keep working with him and JJ (Williams) and putting them in positions in training so they can develop that understanding and confidence. In the games, it’s about them finding ways to play with our team. It’s not just about scoring goals. Also, can they help us execute the game plan defensively and offensively? Can they bring other players into the game? Can they start our pressure in the right way?”

Mullins developed a “super sub” reputation in the league in 2015, when he scored four of his six goals for NYCFC that season coming off the bench. Ironically, in Columbus, his only goal happened in one of his few starts, a 3-2 victory over the New York Red Bulls in 2018.

For the player, there are considerable differences in starting a match or coming off the bench and that could be one of the reasons why he needss just a little more time to show his best game as a starting option for the Crew.

“Before the match, it’s definitely the same in terms of my mental preparation and how I want my mind to be working on that day,” he explained. “But once you step in between the lines, it’s very different when you start the game versus coming on.

“When you start the game, you need to be ready to go all 90 minutes, so you’re not pacing yourself, but you have to be more aware of the pace of the game and managing the game. When you come as a sub, it’s more specific in your role. There are less changes in the game in the final 10 or 15 minutes, it’s more a directive, you have to come in and score goals, so when that’s the case, you play much differently. You play more aggressively, you play more directly, almost in a sense of working even harder to make the most of that time.”

The Crew’s usual 4-2-3-1 formation only has room for one striker, but Porter recently admitted that with Federico Higuain out for the rest of the season due to a knee injury, he strongly considered changing formations.

For now, the team is playing with Santos at the No. 10 spot, but using a two-forward formation isn’t completely ruled out. Mullins, for one, would be up for it.

“As a professional, I want to contribute for as many minutes as possible on the weekend and ultimately that’s up to the coach,” he added. “I’ve played in that system before and I felt very comfortable in it, but that’s Caleb’s to think about and spend time with other coaches discussing what would better for our team based on how we’re performing and I have full trust on them. I’m ready for any challenge.”