Robert Kehoe speaks with the New England Revolution’s rookie sensation ahead of the MLS Cup final
On Sunday, the twenty-two-year-old forward has a chance to win the MLS Cup in his rookie season with the New England Revolution, just one year after Mullins’s Maryland Terrapins fell to Notre Dame in the NCAA’s 2013 College Cup final. In his first year with the Revs, Mullins has scored four goals in 21 appearances, playing a vital role in one of the most remarkable season turn arounds in the league’s history. Eight by Eight‘s Robert Kehoe spoke with Mullins ahead of the MLS Cup about his transition into the MLS, the culture of the Revs, and the impact of his team’s latest arrival, Jermaine Jones.
Thinking about where you were a year ago, you would have been preparing for a quarterfinal match in the College Cup. How does it feel to be heading out to Los Angeles for the MLS Cup Final one year later?
Yeah, it’s been a whirlwind of a year, and I’m really excited to have another chance to play for a championship. With Maryland and now with the Revolution, I’ve been a part of two really special teams with some special players who have made great plays to get to the finals. This year I want to win it though. I don’t want to be second best.
How do you think your college experience prepared you for the pros?
In my life whenever I’m given a chance I want to take full advantage of it, and that attitude is such a part of Maryland culture. Pursuing excellence is something a lot of people and teams talk about but they don’t actually do. At Maryland it’s both, which has had a big impact on me as a person and soccer player.
So Maryland shaped you quite a bit, but you’re also from New Orleans and lived through the horrors of hurricane Katrina. Can you tell me what that experience was like?
Obviously it was a tragic time for the whole region, and my family was very affected by it. We had about seven feet of water in our house and were two blocks away from where one of the levies broke, so we didn’t know where we were gonna live, or what was next. Watching my parents handle that adversity taught me a lot and helped me appreciate the importance of family. From a soccer standpoint I lost about a half a year of competitive play, which was so hard, but it also taught me not to take anything for granted. Having the game taken away from me like that, I was never going to let it go once I got it back.
Not many fans can relate to what it’s like to make the transition from college to pro soccer. How would you describe that?
Well first, if you’re a high level player then you have an addiction to the competition that comes with a high level training and playing environment. I personally can’t wait to get to training, and at the pro level there’s so much skill, experience, and depth on a team. With the Revs we’re very deep. The difference between the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth guys is so small, but the difference between the fifteenth, sixteenth to nineteenth guys on the roster is virtually nothing. That ratchets up the intensity, which I experienced in college, but in the pros it’s much more magnified.
In a one on one match up what player presented you with the toughest challenge this year?
Michael Parkhurst. He’s an incredibly intelligent player, and people don’t give him credit for his physicality and athleticism, but he stretches you as a forward in ways that you can’t see unless you’re on the field. A lot of times center backs will just grind you out physically. Michael does a lot more than that. He keeps on the move and disrupts your rhythm, forcing you to question where you’re at on the field and second guess a run you were going to make, or if you’re offside. He presented a lot of problems for me, which I respect a lot.
What’s been the most difficult team challenge you’ve faced all year?
Losing eight straight games in the summer was really difficult, and probably the worst streak of any MLS team all season. But we have a locker room full of guys who are committed to fixing problems, so we had a lot of intense and meaningful conversations about tactics and other aspects of the game that we needed to correct. As easy as it could have been to get mad at each other and be defeatist we stayed focused on the right things, we kept fighting to find the solutions and eventually turned things around. That definitely made us stronger going into the second half of the season, knowing that we could keep moving in the right direction even when results weren’t going our way.
Is that a reflection on the culture of the Revs organization?
The Revs are very reflective of the blue-collar side of New England. Nobody gives anything away up here. You have to earn it. That’s something Jay Heaps really buys into. Of course he wants to coach the most talented players, but he wants us to be the hardest working team as well.
What about the criticism outsiders level at the Krafts for keeping the team at Gillette, or that Revs fans don’t show the best attendance numbers?
We might not have the most fans per game, and they might not get the best publicity, but I think our fans take their support very seriously and they want to be the most loyal and loudest fan base in the league. I would say the attitude our fans bring to Gillette gives us a sense of pride and reinforces the attitude we try to embody as a team.
As a rookie you’ve given those fans some goals to cheer about, and shown well in your twenty-one appearances. But there are always ups and downs in a season, right?
Yeah, it’s been a bit of a roller coaster. There were certainly some high moments, scoring goals and being in really good form, and then some other areas where I’ve found that I really need to grow if I’m going to be the player I want to be. But I’ve never wavered in my confidence, nor have I settled when things have been going well. I want to keep moving forward to become a good player in this league and then become a great player.
Where do you think you need grow?
A big thing for me is staying tuned into every play, and really keeping my feet active. I find that I have the most success when I’m constantly on the move without the ball, then when I receive it I’m in the best position to flow with the play and score goals. Learning my role in the new system took some time, but as long as I’m moving with the play I connect well with my teammates. So the biggest thing for me is staying tuned in and always active. At this level, if you aren’t tuned in somebody else will be.
With that in mind, as the season has developed Jermaine comes in and that’s a spot on the field that’s taken, and then Charlie Davies finds some great form in the last couple months, which has certainly had an impact on your playing time. How have you managed that whole experience?
It’s definitely been a challenge, but I think I’ve handled it well. Charlie and I have a great relationship, where we’re constantly pushing each other to be sharper and thinking about different movements and runs to disrupt defenders. We’re always looking to help each other out, and we’re both proud of that. I don’t think that always happens in pro environments, and of course he knows I’m not happy with a diminished role, but obviously he’s earned his time on the field and really ignited our team with some crucial goals. Overall I think Charlie and my relationship has been really healthy for our team.
Considering this has also been a breakout year for Lee Nguyen, how enjoyable has it been to be a part of his success?
The relationship between the guys up front has been good all year, and Lee has been fantastic. Obviously Charlie and I have had periods of success, and Lee’s has been more sustained, but the strength of our work together has been consistent throughout and it’s been really fun to be a part of that.
Let’s talk about Jermaine. You guys had a bad run in the summer, then he comes onto the team and everything changed, both visibly and in terms of results. How would you define his contribution thus far?
Yeah, we really added a quality player with tremendous experience. Even before he came we were a good team, but he took us to another level that we couldn’t have achieved without him.
What makes him so special?
For me, not only is he experienced, but he’s such a hungry player. He’s also very humble and team oriented. He doesn’t try to call the shots and draw attention to himself. Just comes in and puts in the work every day, which has been contagious for our team, and a great example for young guys like myself.
One of the things a lot of people have said about David Beckham was that for all the hype and celebrity, his greatest contribution to MLS was modeling his work ethic in training with the Galaxy. Is that the same with Jermaine? What’s he like in training?
He definitely trains the way he plays, with focus and intensity. He also brings so much personality and passion to every practice. I mean, he loves coming out every day and doing soccer for a living, and with all the technical ability, athleticism and energy he brings to the table it’s a pretty potent combination.
Does he ever cuss you out in German just for fun?
Well, he’s not the only one. Just get in line. [Laughs]
Thinking about his contribution to the national team over the summer, what was it like to watch a World Cup and then be playing with and against key contributors in the tournament? That’s gotta be a little surreal.
Yeah, it’s a kinda crazy. With Jermaine I joke with him about how I was jumping up and down on my couch when he scores that goal against Portugal and now we’re on the same team. It’s pretty wild. But for us young guys it also gives us a real sense of what to aspire to and how to measure ourselves against the best in the world.
How about this undefeated run, which has obviously continued through the playoffs?
It’s been pretty special. I don’t know exactly what the date is, but I know the last time we lost a game was at Columbus a very long time ago. Again, going back to when we were losing, we were still trying to fix problems and we knew we weren’t far away. We just needed to put it all together. To maintain confidence during those bad results was key, and then Jermaine came on board. Those two factors have been a driving force for our success.
From an observer’s perspective I thought the Eastern Conference finals were two of the best MLS matches ever. Did you feel that you were a part of something special against the Red Bulls?
Yes! Not only because the quality was so high, the action was end to end and both teams were so hungry, but the atmosphere at both stadiums was really amazing. In New Jersey there was a sellout crowd, with a lot of Revs fans in attendance. Then to have 30,000 loud fans at Gillette (with a good amount of Red Bulls fans too) created a proper soccer atmosphere that both teams fed off. Obviously it was two good teams capable of playing at a very high level, but the stage couldn’t have been set any better. I think we’ll see more of that as MLS continues to grow.
As you prepare for an MLS Cup final, what are you thinking and feeling right now?
I’m not sure it’s quite hit me yet, but you could feel it in training today. Everybody’s buzzing with excitement and really focused. We know we’re so close to something we’ve put a lot of time and effort into, but we also know we have a big task ahead of us. I have no doubt we’ll stay focused and put in a good performance, and if that’s the case the results will take care of themselves.
How do you think you match up against LA?
They’re an extremely talented team all over the field. But the thing that makes them so dangerous is that they can win so many different ways. They can hit you with Landon and Robbie Keane on fast paced counter attacks, but if the game dictates a slower tempo they can play with sustained possession or grind out an ugly win too.
What will be the keys to a win for the Revs?
If we stick to what we do best, which is keeping the ball moving with quick combinations through the middle and final third, and stay compact defensively I think we’ll get the result we’re all craving.
Who wins on Sunday?
The Revs! I have confidence in our team, we’re still in a great run of form, and I think if we do the right things it will be our name on the trophy.