Veteran Colorado Rapids midfielder Brian Mullan has lifted MLS Cup five times during an 11-year career that’s seen him turn out for Los Angeles Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes and Houston Dynamo. No player has been more successful in Major League Soccer’s history.
Experienced or not, the 33-year-old is still finding his feet in first-year Head Coach Oscar Pareja’s revamped Colorado side. The Colombian’s new system requires Mullan to play higher up the field and to make cutting runs inside to support forward Omar Cummings. It’s a huge change from how Mullan has spent the past decade, as a diligent midfield counter-balance to more creative players.
“I feel like I’m 21 again and just coming into the league,” said Mullan after Colorado’s 4-1 loss at New York Red Bulls Sunday.
Pareja’s fluid 4-2-3-1 attacking formation has brought sweeping changes to a Rapids team schooled in previous Head Coach Gary Smith’s rigid 4-4-2 over the past three years. It’s delivered mixed results so far. A 2-0 win over Columbus Crew on the opening weekend and a 2-1 triumph at Philadelphia Union gave Colorado maximum points going into Sunday’s clash.
The Rapids went to Red Bull Arena missing their injured captain Pablo Mastroeni and the suspended Jeff Larentowicz. Two individual errors in the opening six minutes by Ross LaBauex and Jaime Castrillon destroyed their hopes of leaving with at least a point.
Mullan and Cummings showed hints of their developing link-up play in the latter stages of the first half. Another Rapids defensive miscue eight minutes after the interval allowed Thierry Henry to give New York a 3-0 lead before Cummings notched a late consolation.
“We made some preventable mistakes that they capitalized on,” Mullan said. “We had an entirely new midfield and I think nerves contributed to it.
“Unfortunately most of the time you get away with that in the opening minutes, but it didn’t happen today.”
Los Angeles selected Mullan as a forward with the ninth pick of the 2001 MLS SuperDraft. The Creighton University product developed into an industrious right-sided midfielder under Frank Yallop after being traded to San Jose Earthquakes in 2003. Mullan became a staple of Dominic Kinnear’s dominant Houston Dynamo midfield – along with Brad Davis, Dwayne De Rosario and Ricardo Clark – that fueled the club’s back-to-back championships in 2006 and 2007.
Houston traded Mullan to the Rapids in September 2010, two months before the team’s unlikely run to the MLS title and Mullan’s fifth championship. Sunday marked his 318th MLS appearance, during which time he has scored 29 goals and provided 58 assists.
New systems are becoming increasingly prevalent in MLS, from the 4-3-3 of Peter Vermes at Sporting Kansas City and Aron Winter at Toronto F.C. to the 4-2-3-1 of Pareja and Martin Rennie at Vancouver Whitecaps. That means players like Mullan need to shake off old habits.
“To tell you the truth, it hasn’t been easy for me,” Mullan said. “The coaching staff has been supportive and very communicative about what they want. I’m learning day by day.
“I haven’t played forward in 10 years. I’m trying to relearn now. There’s more offensive responsibility and not as much defensive responsibility. I pride myself on my defense, so it’s been difficult for me. I’m slowly getting into it.
“For a person like me who’s been in the league a long time and basically seen 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 the entire time, it takes some doing. But for international competitions it will be beneficial to see these different formations.”
The disparity of formations can be seen as another sign that MLS is improving as players become more intelligent and tactically aware. New additions like Vancouver, Portland Timbers and Montreal Impact are also helping to raise standards, according to Mullan.
“You used to see a drop when an expansion team came in,” Mullan said. “That’s almost unnoticeable now.
“That speaks volumes about the depth of talent and how the league has grown.”