This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Sandy • Each Wilmington Hammerhead player that emerges from the concrete tunnel at Rio Tinto Stadium Tuesday night will have a couple of objectives in mind: First off, shocking Real Salt Lake at home. Secondly, in doing so, they'd immediately validate their abilities against an established Major League Soccer franchise.
"One good game and that could be just a little break or a chance they can get to get their foot in the door at the MLS level," said RSL midfielder Luke Mulholland. "They'll definitely treat this as their FA Cup final game."
He knows. After all, he was a Hammerhead once, and in the exact same shoes as RSL's fourth-round U.S. Open Cup opponent.
Nearly five years ago, Mulholland walked out onto the pitch as a visitor, sporting the same Wilmington blue-and-white stripes that will be on display Tuesday. He went 90 minutes against RSL that night in June 2011, just a few months into his first professional contract with the Hammerheads.
That match in front of a sparse crowd of 7,620 in Sandy forever altered the path of Mulholland's playing career. RSL saw the blonde Brit for the first time in its eventual 2-0 win over Wilmington, and kept tabs. After successful stints in Wilmington and later with the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Mulholland eventually signed with RSL in Jan. 2014.
"He put himself on our radar in that game," RSL coach Jeff Cassar said.
Facing his old club in nearly the exact same circumstances Tuesday night will be interesting, Mulholland said. Pulling for the Hammerheads in their third-round Open Cup match against Miami FC, the 27-year-old got his wish. He'll face a few former teammates, including Wilmington head coach Mark Briggs, a fellow Brit who was a player/assistant coach in 2011.
"It's a funny turn of events five years down the road to where I am now," Mulholland said.
His third year at RSL has been markedly different. As a rookie in 2014, Mulholland unseated former star-to-be Luis Gil within the first few weeks of the season. In his first two seasons with the club, he started 51 matches, injecting timely sparks of offense.
That's changed in 2016. Not the spark part that's certainly still there. Mulholland is now challenging to get his starting role back in the RSL midfield. Mulholland's untimely injury in the preseason allowed newly signed Sunday Stephen to step in alongside Kyle Beckerman. That central midfield tandem helped RSL off to its hot start, but left Mulholland waiting for his next chance.
"[It's] probably the most time I've ever spent on the bench in my professional career," he said. "It's been frustrating personally, but it is what it is. I'm a team player, so I keep my head down and try and stay positive."
Injuries, suspensions and national-team call-ups have given Mulholland opportunities. What's become par for the course, Mulholland has found a way to continually impact the game. His long-distance strike at Sporting KC on April 2 proved to be the game-winner and as recently as RSL's wild 4-3 loss in Columbus on May 28, Mulholland's patented long-range shot once again found the back of the net.
In 72 appearances at RSL since 2014, Mulholland has 11 goals and 11 assists. It's a stat line hard to argue against. In his six starts in 2016, RSL is 4-2-0.
"It doesn't matter if he's a starter or on the bench, he always does something good," said Javier Morales. "I love those kind of players."
Eager to break back into the starting lineup on a full-time basis and not relinquish the spot, Mulholland returns to the tournament that helped launch his career, again out to prove his ability, just like that June night nearly five years ago.
"I think Luke, to his credit, is the type of player that no matter what you think he's capable of, he's always going to prove you wrong and prove to be a bit better than what you think," said RSL general manager Craig Waibel.
Real Salt Lake vs. Wilmington Hammerheads FC
P Fourth round 2016 U.S. Open Cup match
At Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy
Kickoff » Tuesday, 8 p.m.
TV » None Radio » 700 AM
Last meeting » RSL 2, Wilmington 0 (Open Cup match at Rio Tinto Stadium in June 2011)
About RSL » For the first time, MLS clubs are allowed to use USL-affiliated players for U.S. Open Cup matches, meaning some Real Monarchs could play Tuesday. … The match is the first on the newly installed grass field at Rio Tinto Stadium. … RSL is 8-2-0 all time in Open Cup play at home. … Right back Tony Beltran scored his only goal in an RSL uniform the last time Wilmington came to town in June 2011. … Should RSL win, its next Open Cup match would likely be Tuesday, June 28.
About Wilmington » The Hammerheads defeated Miami FC 2-1 at FIU Stadium on June 1 to advance to the fourth-round matchup with RSL. … Wilmington beat the Miami Fusion of the NPSL 6-0 in May to advance to the next round against Miami FC. … Wilmington currently sits in eighth place in the USL Eastern Conference table. … Bruno Caldini Perone leads the club in goals in USL play with four.
About Luke Mulholland
Age » 27
Position » Midfielder
Hometown » Preston, England
Pro career » Real Salt Lake (2014-present), Tampa Bay Rowdies (2012-2013), NSC Minnesota Stars (2011), Wilmington Hammerheads (2011)
Games played » Mulholland has 11 goals and 11 assists in 72 career regular-season appearances at RSL. In 2016, he has two goals and two assists in six starts.
Transaction » Signed by RSL on Jan. 21, 2014