BIG INTERVIEW: Craig Salmon talks to Preston-born MLS star Luke Mulholland
Luke Mulholland is hoping to put in some extra ‘groundwork’ for the next time he walks on to the same football pitch as one of his idols – former Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard.
The Preston-born footballer is set to line-up against the iconic English midfielder once more next month when his team Real Salt Lake City meet LA Galaxy in a Major League Soccer (MLS) fixture.
The pair came face-to-face with each other twice last year with Mulholland coming out on top on both occasions against his more illustrious compatriot.
Gerrard made his competitive debut for Galaxy against Salt Lake in July, but his half-time introduction failed to stop Mulholland and his team-mates securing a 1-0 victory in the US Open Cup.
And the former European Cup winner was unable to exact revenge in a MLS game a couple of months later as Salt Lake ran out convincing 3-0 victors in front of their home fans at the Rio Tinto Stadium.
While thrilled to have got the better of Gerrard last season, Mulholland was a little bit disappointed after the matches.
As a Liverpool supporter, the former Cadley Junior FC star was dearly hoping to swap shirts with Gerrard at the final whistle only to discover the ex-Liverpool star had already done deals with his team-mates.
However, this season Mulholland has a cunning plan.
“It was a great experience to come up against Gerrard,” revealed Mulholland.
“I have come up against the likes of Robbie Keane and Thierry Henry in the MLS in the past
“It still amazes me that I have managed to play against players like that but of course, to play against someone like Stevie G was pretty special.
“I did not really speak to Gerrard after the games against Galaxy last season.
“He kind of kept himself to himself.
“He is such a big name. He gets a lot of attention and a lot of the players always want to speak to him afterwards.
“I didn’t want to bother him too much.
“I shook his hand after the final whistle and said, ‘Well played’.
“I asked him if I could have his shirt, but he said someone else had got in there first.
“So I did not manage to get hold of his shirt.
“I’m hoping I might be able to get it this year...we’ll see.
“I might have to have a word with the LA Galaxy kitman – see if he can put a good word in,” he added with a chuckle.
The fact that Mulholland can talk about victories over a player of such high calibre as Gerrard speaks volumes for his own amazing career.
His journey to the top of the American game is an inspirational story of single-mindedness and outright determination.
Unlike Gerrard, he can never claim to be an household name on the world stage, but he saw an opportunity to make his own way in the game – and clasped it with both feet!
Shunned by Football League clubs in the UK as a youngster, Mulholland – who hails from Ashton – decided to try and make a name for himself ‘across the pond’ when, at the age of 18, he enrolled on a football scholarship at Wingate University, North Carolina.
Fast forward nine years, the former Lancaster City midfielder has a degree to his name and a growing football career to be proud of.
It’s fair to say, Mulholland’s route to the top in American soccer has been a long one.
An apprentice ship served in the Premier Development League with Reading United preceded a move to the Wilmington Hammerheads in the United Premier League – the third tier of the professional game in the States.
His performances for the Hammerheads quickly captured the attentions of clubs in the level above.
NSC Minnesota Stars took him to the North American Soccer League in 2011 before he joined the Tampa Bay Rowdies a year later.
After 50-plus appearances and 15 goals with the Florida club, Mulholland got his big break in 2014 when he was snapped up by Real Salt Lake in the MLS.
“It’s been a long journey and there’s been a lot of steps along the way to get to where I am now, Mulholland said.
“But looking back, they were very important steps.
“There were a lot of long-term commitments and sacrifices.
“It’s not been easy getting to this stage of playing for a MLS team.
“From my own experiences, I have played with players over here who only lasted one or two years in the professional leagues, such as the USL and NASL.
“It can be difficult – you can feel like you’re on a slippery slope because there’s not as many leagues as there are in the UK for instance.
“In places like England, you can go all the way down to League Two – even non-league – and still be able to make a decent living.
“Out here, it’s pretty tough.
“Once you have got your foot in the door – that is good.
“It gives you the chance to move around, but I know players who have had to drop down from the MLS or NASL and they are trying to get themselves back up.
“So it can be a slippery slope.
“You just have to try to enjoy it while you, but at the same time, I will be doing everything in my power to make sure I am playing in the MLS for the rest of my career.
“It is a dream come true for me to be playing in the MLS – I’m living the American dream, but I don’t want it to stop.”
To keep his football dream alive over the years, Mulholland had to take on a number of different jobs, including washing the soccer team’s kit at university.
Even after making the move to Salt Lake, he had to supplement his ‘rookie’ contract by coaching kids in his spare time.
“When I first came out here, I set up by my own coaching clinic,” he said.
“I try to give something back to the community – and that was a little bit of a sideline which I had.
“But right now I am just going to concentrate on my football, I don’t really have much free time to do the coaching.
“The focus is to really to do well for Real Salt Lake and keep my performance levels high on the field.”
The game in the States has enjoyed a boom time over the last few years, especially after the arrival of David Beckham in 2007, who joined Galaxy
Although he has since retired, the MLS has been able to attract other major world stars such as Gerrard, Frank Lampard, Thierry Henry and Andrea Pirlo over the last few years.
The game is now broadcast live to a UK audience after Sky Sports struck a deal with the MLS, allowing fans to get their regular football fix throughout the summer months.
And Mulholland appeared in front of a staggering 60,000 supporters on the opening day of the new season as Salt Lake drew 2-2 away at Orlando City SC.
That attendance was one of the biggest worldwide and Mulholland said: “It’s a great time to be a player over here in America.
“When I was getting close to the finishing line of my degree at university, you had David Beckham coming over and playing in the MLS.
“I think people in the UK knew about the league but I don’t think the game over here was as topical in the UK or nationwide across America as it is now.
“I think over the last few years, the game has really picked up especially since the last World Cup.
“The crowds are good – I think the one way played in front of against Orlando was something like the fifth highest in the world.
“I have been able to stick around and be part of it all.
“The game is growing all the time.
“There’s a lot of star players from around the world who have come to the MLS. It’s exciting times to be a part of the league and I’m delighted to be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Robbie Keane, Stevie Gerrard and Frank Lampard.”
The format of the MLS sees clubs split into two divisions of 10 – with teams divided into a Eastern and Western Conference.
In an unbalanced fixture schedule, a club will play 24 games against opponents from their own conference and will also play 10 matches against teams from the other conference.
The top six teams from each conference will then go forward to the MLS Cup play-offs, with the grand final held in December.
“You have to fly to every away game which is obviously a bit different when compared to the UK,” Mulholland said.
“Over here, we will usually train on the Friday morning and then fly out in the early afternoon around two o’clock so that we arrive at our destination in the early evening
“Then it’s a case of checking-in to our hotel, having dinner and then getting ready for bed.
“In the morning, we wake up it’s game day.
“Hopefully, we will taken car of business and then we will fly home on Sunday.
“It is a bit of a quick 48-hour turnaround – we pack a lot in, but I’ve sort of got used to it now.
“From the west coast to the east coast, it is only a three-hour time difference, but it is a long journey.
“When we do those kind of trips, we will usually fly out on the Thursday and train on the Friday just to give us that extra bit of time to recover from the flight and acclimatise.”
Salt Lake have begun the new season well and have yet to lose in their opening two games. They face Portland Timbers away tomorrow night and Mulholland is aiming high this season.
“The team has done pretty well in the two years since I have been here,” he said.
“Last year was a little disappointing just missing out on the play-offs and the previous year we were unlucky to lose in the quarter-finals against LA Galaxy.
“We have started this season well – a win and a draw from our first two games is good going.
“We won last weekend against Seattle Sounders 2-1 and drew our opening game of the season against Orlando.
“We should really have won that one. We were winning 2-0 with only a minute to go and somehow they scored two goals
“We are a decent team. We just need to tighten up on a few things at the back and hopefully this year, we can do some damage.
“I think we are a great attacking team – but hopefully we can fill the holes in defensively because that is what we really struggled with last season.
“For me personally, I came to Real Salt Lake as an unknown player and I’ve managed to make 60 appearances in two years which has been great for me.
“I consider myself to be one of starters in the team and hopefully I can continue to add value.”