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Sandy • Playing fifth-division professional soccer isn't a finish line. Especially not in England, one of the sport's hotbeds from around the globe. At 17, Luke Mulholland had to reassess how he'd continue his pursuit of a career as a pro.
Those days of playing in the North Conference with his local college academy are so far away. Because unlike young soccer players with aspirations of playing in front of jam-packed crowds in various districts, counties and regions in the United Kingdom, Mulholland fashioned his career by crossing the pond.
When in most cases, it's the other way around.
Real Salt Lake's 25-year-old rookie midfielder took the road more traveled in the chase for life as a professional.
He bounced from Wingate University in North Carolina, where he starred for four years with the Division-II college, to playing in the USL's Premier Development League (PDL) in Pennsylvania and Minnesota. In 2011, he inked his first pro contract with the Wilmington Hammerheads. After traveling around the country and attending combines in search for looks, Mulholland just "tried to let my football do the talking."
"It was a big weight off my shoulders," he said. "A proud moment of satisfaction. As soon as I get settled in somewhere, that's when I can relax and enjoy my football."
Following back-to-back seasons starring with the NASL's Tampa Bay Rowdies, Mulholland is relaxed with RSL. And if those who haven't watched the Brit play a significant role in the club's unbeaten start, he's enjoying himself. First-year coach Jeff Cassar, who scouted the NASL and other leagues in previous years under former coach Jason Kreis, said Mulholland was a necessary addition to RSL. Cassar kept in the ear of general manager Garth Lagerwey after following Mulholland for the last three seasons.
A deal was struck and eventually announced on Jan. 21. One of the NASL's brightest players, Mulholland could have stayed in Tampa and made twice as much as he is now. But he's never been one for comfort zones and always had his eye on MLS.
"That was quite hard to swallow as a 25-year-old, because there's a bit of money in that league now and if you're one of the top 10 players in that league, you'll make six figures," Mulholland said, "so that's pretty much taking down six figures to come to MLS, but I definitely don't regret it."
His teammates first took notice in preseason when Mulholland was studying the complexities of being an outside midfielder in RSL's sustained diamond formation. He needed to learn the verbiage and the steps to pressing in the attack and retreating to help defend.
"That [position] could be the most difficult position in our system," said defender Tony Beltran, who plays behind Mulholland on the right-hand side. "It's so demanding physically and it's hard to learn defensively. You have to give so much, always be in the right spot, otherwise you're exposed. Huge credit to Luke: He worked tremendously hard in preseason and he's reaping the benefits now."
Introducing yourself to a league requires some fortune and misfortune.
Mulholland's role expanded when Javier Morales missed RSL's second match of the year at San Jose and Luis Gil suffered a hamstring injury on April 5 at Sporting Kansas City. As Cole Grossman and Sebastian Velasquez battled various injuries, the onus fell on the rookie.
"He's aggressive, he's hungry," said Morales. "He's a guy who always wants to score goals and [is] a hard worker. I think right now he's doing great."
If not for a phantom offside call at L.A. in the season opener on March 8 a match his family was watching live back in the U.K. Mulholland's disallowed goal in his MLS debut may have been the game winner. A week later, he notched his first at San Jose and now 11 weeks into the season he has three goals and two assists. Cassar is impressed with how Mulholland integrated himself seamlessly into the locker room and learning ins and outs of his position after being more of an attacking midfielder for most of his career.
"He's earned that spot because he's got some talented players that are nipping at his heels to get into the lineup," Cassar said. "He's deserved what he's gotten."
Luke Mulholland never pictured himself getting a serious job; rather he'd always envisioned playing soccer as the only finish line. That is, until he no longer can play. In the meantime, he's balancing the relishing of the moment with the realization that he isn't the first rookie to have wowed in 11 career MLS matches.
"Not counting my chickens yet," he said. "Everyone can have one good season and then take the foot off the gas and you never hear of them again. My goal is to play as many years as I can in MLS. I've got no intentions of moving back to England to play at whatever level … I think MLS is growing, getting better and my aim is to just get as many years as I can under my belt in this league, and hopefully, with RSL. I have no interest in going to any other team. I think it's got a good thing going here. There's a lot of veterans that I can learn from. Hopefully, one day, I can be one of those veterans."
Twitter: @chriskamrani About Luke Mulholland
Age • 25. Position • Midfielder. Hometown » Preston, England.
Pro career • Real Salt Lake (2014-present), Tampa Bay Rowdies, (2012-2013), Minnesota Stars (2011), Wilmington Hammerheads (2011), Reading United (2009-2010)
College career • Four-year starter at Wingate University (N.C.) Transaction » Signed by Real Salt Lake on Jan. 21
Games played • 11 matches, seven starts, three goals, two assists
FC Dallas at RSL
O Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
TV • Ch. 4