Playoffs in Profile: Mullan finally at home in Colorado

MLS Cup veteran jumps ship from Houston to help Rapids make a run

As the MLS Cup playoffs get set to begin, the MLSsoccer.com
series "Playoffs In Profile" will take a look at the players and
personalities who will each play a crucial role in their teams' hopes of
winning the MLS Cup.

In this installment, new media editor Nick Firchau looks at Colorado's Brian Mullan, who joined the Rapids in September after winning three MLS Cups in Houston and San Jose with former coach Dominic Kinnear. Mullan says he wanted out of Houston so that he return home and possibly close his career there. Check back with MLSsoccer.com to read
the latest story as
the "Playoffs in Profile" series continues this week.

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – There’s nothing particularly spectacular about the land surrounding Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. Like much of Colorado’s Front Range, it’s an expanse of prairieland that doesn’t offer much unless maybe you’re a green energy opportunist, looking to capitalize on what’s already here in quiet abundance: lots of sun, and lots of wind.

But it’s the wide open spaces of Colorado that keep the natives there or, if they’re strayed, usually draw them back home later in life. And on a seasonably warm October day there last week, Brian Mullan was clearly thrilled to be back, eager for a unique career homecoming in a place where, finally, there’s some energy out there in the fields east of Denver.

The Colorado Rapids’ trade to wrestle Mullan away from the Houston Dynamo in July was perhaps the most interesting deal of a season that had its share of headliners. The move to land Mullan was a shrewd sign that Colorado was in win-now mode this time while still in search of their first MLS crown.

Why such noise about a 32-year-old outside midfielder who’s never made an All-Star appearance and about whom teammates say hardly speaks? Look around. Mullan is the only player who will compete in the 2010 postseason with four MLS Cups on his résumé.

And the Rapids? Fans in New York talk about the famous woes of the MetroStars and Red Bulls, but the fans and players in Colorado have been just as tortured, if not more so. They reached the MLS Cup way back in 1997 only to fall to Bruce Arena’s D.C. United juggernaut 2-1 in front of more than 57,000 fans at RFK Stadium, and have never returned.

Seven franchises have won the MLS Cup since that loss, including increasingly hated rival Real Salt Lake in 2009.

Now that’s altitude sickness.

Now sharply gray in parts near the temples, Pablo Mastroeni is the undisputed leader in Rapids camp. He won a Supporters’ Shield with the Miami Fusion in 2001 and was a regular with the US national team for most of the last decade. But at 34 and staring down his last few years in the league, Mastroeni still lacks the MLS hardware his career probably deserves.

Mastroeni picked up an ally before the season in midfielder Jeff Larentowicz, who was traded to Colorado after he played a critical part in the New England Revolution’s runs to the MLS Cup final in 2006 and 2007.

But it’s the arrival of Mullan – who has won back-to-back MLS Cups on two occasions in his career – that changes the dynamic.

“He doesn’t demand respect,” Mastroeni said, “but he gets respect because of his past.”

Out of Houston

In fact, it was an aggressive and somewhat risky move on Mullan’s part that landed him in Colorado. He had carved his niche with the San Jose Earthquakes and then the Houston Dynamo since breaking out in 2003 as a forward-turned-midfielder, and played a vital role in each of the franchise’s three MLS Cups by 2007 (he also won a Cup with the 2002 LA Galaxy, though he didn’t appear in the final).

But when the 2010 season rolled around, Mullan was just as interested in taking stock of his personal life. He grew up in the south Denver suburb of Littleton and won a high school championship during his senior year in 1997. His wife, too, is a Colorado native and has been with him since their days as high school sweethearts and college soccer players at Creighton.

With two young sons and likely the last phase of his career approaching, Mullan admits now that he approached the Dynamo about his aspirations about getting out of Houston. He wanted to go back home to Denver, where his family lived and where his kids could get some exposure to the great outdoors where he and his wife grew up.

So Mullan asked for a trade and hinted at potential retirement, but it was clear he wasn't coming back to Houston in 2011.

“Getting older, thinking about retirement, all that stuff … Houston’s a nice place, but it was hard for the kids to not be able to play outside,” Mullan said. “Soccer-wise, it was a great place, but living there, it was really hard for the family.

“When you’re a young kid, being outside is a big deal. And in Colorado, that’s a lifestyle,” he added. “When you’re in Houston, you go to training, you’re in your house, you’re exhausted for the rest of the day. It feels like you’re living to play soccer. That wasn’t what I wanted anymore.”

Mullan says he spoke with the Dynamo about the idea of a trade to Colorado, and he certainly had some leverage. The Rapids, coincidentally, had quietly coveted Mullan at least since head coach Gary Smith joined the staff in Feb. 2008.

“I liked him as soon as I saw him,” Smith said. “But when guys are performing that well and the team is as good as Houston was, to try and pry those players out of those winning teams is very difficult. But it was always nice to think that he was a hometown boy, and that he would come back to his old turf at some point.”

By the start of the 2010 season, the Dynamo were no longer the powerhouse of 2006 and 2007, when Mullan anchored the right side of a talented lineup. Faces like Dwayne De Rosario, Nate Jaqua and Stuart Holden were gone and Dominic Kinnear’s group was clearly entering a transitional phase that ended this season with a rare spot outside of the MLS playoffs.

Mullan, however, says the on-field dynamics never influenced his decision to make a move. It was just time to consider the next step of a career that will inevitably wind down in the next few years.

“There was nothing really anyone could do about those other guys leaving,” Mullan said. “For me and my family, we just knew that we wanted to end up here to ease a transition.”

The trade was a tough one on Kinnear, who’s known Mullan since Earthquakes coach Frank Yallop traded for him back in 2003. Kinnear was an assistant then but still seasoned enough to know what the team had in the soft-spoken Mullan, who had seen relatively limited time up top with LA in his first few seasons before he made the switch in position and location in San Jose.

“He was very competitive, and he never backed down from any challenge,” Kinnear said. “Everybody loves to win, but I don’t know that everybody hates to lose. Brian is at the top of that category of the guys who absolutely hate to lose.”

The Dynamo reluctantly shipped Mullan off to Colorado on Sept. 15, taking a shot on injured midfielder Colin Clark and some allocation money in the deal.

“I know it was tough for him, but he’s a very big family guy, and he’s very good to his players,” Mullan said of Kinnear. “Dom recognized for a while that I wasn’t happy there, and that it didn’t look I like I enjoyed playing anymore.”

Moving West

Mullan was an automatic starter when he arrived in Colorado in September, but he didn’t necessarily take the transition smoothly. He told Rapids personnel later that the nerves were so strong during his debut on Sept. 18 against New England at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park that ne nearly threw up before the game.

That’s what a homecoming will do, evidently.

“I didn’t know what to think or to expect,” Mullan said. “I just wanted to come here and do what I’ve always done. This team’s been good before, so if I could add something, I was in for it.”

Mullan certainly adds an offensive threat to an already potent Rapids attack. He’s a touchline-to-touchline type player with deceptive speed and an eagerness to attack from his spot on the right flank. He mixes it up, too, tracking back on defense and sticking his nose sometimes where it’s a surprising place to be.

“Every time we played Houston, Mullan gave us fits,” Mastroeni said. “When he gets the ball, he runs at you, and he backs you up on your heels. His teams always seem to have better field position because of what he’s doing.”

Said Larentowicz: “He can do things on his own. He doesn’t necessarily need guys around to help him.”

Mullan is one of the quieter players on the Rapids, but not necessarily because he’s having a hard time adjusting in the locker room. As he puts it, he’s simply a blue-collar working man who clocks in and clocks out, never much for conversation or mingling.

But here’s where he speaks loudly. For a franchise that has lacked for a wealth of proven veterans and accolades in recent years, Mullan’s arrival is a more than welcome addition for Mastroeni, who says he feels less of an individual burden when it comes to bringing a title to town.

“I’ve put a lot of it on myself in years past, and I’ve had to pull out any trick I can to motivate the guys,” Mastroeni said. “And people see right through that sort of stuff. But when you have guys here who have validated themselves with such strong careers, you start to sense the real belief that we can make a run.”

Mullan, however, isn’t buying into the idea that he’s the salvation. The Rapids were good before he came, he knows that. They were already a threat to win at least a conference semifinal series (they host Columbus in the first leg of the Eastern Conference semis on Thursday) and perhaps make a bit more noise beyond.

For Mullan, it’s just a chance to make a change in his life, but reach the same goals in his career. Now he’s just working a bit closer to home.

“Here, now, life is a lot easier,” Mullan said. “And that translates into better soccer.”

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