Brian Mullan is a five-time MLS Cup winner, a 14-year professional and an intense, fiery competitor within the sport of soccer in the United States. But if you ask those closest to him - those who know just what makes Brian Mullan tick - they will tell you these descriptions significantly pale in comparison to a couple of words much closer to home ... husband and father.
In soccer he’s been a warrior, having battled back through serious injury, and thrilling soccer fans with his unyielding drive to compete and win. Unfortunately for those fans, injuries will force Mullan, 36, to retire at the end of the current season and close the book on what has been an extraordinary career in an era of growth for soccer in the United States.
In life, though, he’s been a family man. That Mullan even made it through 14 years as a pro player is surprising - not because he didn’t have the ability, but because his life is much bigger than the game he played. You can ask Brian about his career - about the highs and lows. He’s polite, but it’s obvious he’d rather change the subject to his kids or fly-fishing or anything but his job.
“I’ve always had trouble talking about myself,” he says. “And although soccer has been a big part of my life, I’ve always felt it’s more important first to be a stand-up person and to be hard-working, which then translates to the field.
“It’s about the values instilled by your parents, making a commitment, realizing what a team is, and knowing what’s important. My family is the most important thing.”
His successes in Major League Soccer are well chronicled: MLS Cup championships with Los Angeles Galaxy, San Jose Earthquakes, Houston Dynamo (2) and Colorado Rapids; 359 MLS appearances, respect from coaches and players alike, and a reputation as the consummate team player.
“Like anything that you spend a long time doing, it’s about the relationships you build,” says Mullan, always modest and typically understated when it comes to talking about himself. “You meet a lot of people who are similar in mindset and goals. I’ve made a lot of good friends, especially with the fans over the years.”
That the first words out of Brian’s mouth are more about family and relationships rather than championships is not surprising. His wife, Kersten, says it’s because the real Brian Mullan, at the core, isn’t about soccer at all.
“He’s about as far from being a soccer player as anyone who has ever played,” she says. “He doesn’t watch much soccer unless it’s on in the locker room. He doesn’t follow the EPL. I think I probably watch more soccer than he does.”
It’s a bit of a marvel that Mullan lasted 14 years in the league, especially given the fact that he contemplated giving up the game during his first two years after facing reconstructive surgery for his ankle while in Los Angeles.
“He really thought he might leave the game,” says Kersten, who added that his career really got started when he went to San Jose to join Frank Yallop and Dominic Kinnear.
Houston’s Kinnear: He’s the best
His arrival at San Jose in 2003 signaled the beginning of an eight-year player-coach relationship with Kinnear - and what a first year it was. San Jose, with Mullan, won the MLS Cup and as Brian remembers: “I learned an awful lot that first year.”
“When he came to us, we played him as a right-sided midfielder,” said Kinnear. “Actually, Brian is one of a dying breed - the classic right winger who can really hug the touchline wide, take players on and swing in great crosses.
"And he’s competitive to the core," Kinnear adds. “He’s just a terrible player to play against. He hates losing the ball and doesn’t like anyone getting the better of him.”
“I’ll get straight to the point,” says Kinnear, who played 123 games in MLS and had 54 appearances for the U.S. National Team. “He’s one of my favorite people and he knows how I feel about him. Great player. Great person.”
The player Mullan was organized, methodical and diligent about his work. But Kinnear marvels how Mullan was always able to keep his work in perspective with his responsibilities as a husband and father of two sons, Brady 9, and Keagan 6.
“It’s amazing how he can turn the switch off from soccer and leave it behind as soon as he leaves the locker room,” says the Scottish-born Kinnear, who was the coach during those two Houston MLS Cup titles.
“He’s a family guy. He hated doing interviews. His wife, Kersten, is a high school coach and he was always out helping her. Once he leaves the locker room, he’s definitely Brian Mullan, husband and father."
A goal they still talk about
Kinnear ticks off numerous highlights from Mullan’s five seasons in Houston, perhaps the most memorable occurring against the Rapids in the 2006 Western Conference final.
“One of the best goals I’ve ever seen (in person),” Kinnear recalls. “It was the third goal against the Rapids that game, a volley from the right-hand side. I remember the great celebration with his teammates. It still stands as one of the top five goals in Dynamo history.”
Then there was the miracle comeback. In 2003, with the Los Angeles Galaxy leading 2-0 on aggregate in a two-game Western Conference playoff, the Galaxy scored the first two goals of the second game, increasing the lead to 4-0 with 15 minutes to play. Then followed what is still described as one of the most remarkable recoveries in MLS history as the Earthquakes scored five times to prevail, 5-4, on aggregate.
“He was our right winger that day and had a wonderful game,” Kinnear said. “Ever since that day, it was a given that Brian would play on the right side … but if you needed someone to play up front, you could put him there or, in a pinch, even right back.”
The Colorado hockey kid
Jackie and Bob Mullan had three sons: Shawn, Tim and Brian. Ice hockey was their thing. All three boys were goaltenders for teams in the Littleton Hockey Association. Shawn played collegiate hockey and later moved up to play at the Junior A level.
“I finally realized there were only two positions on a hockey team as goalkeeper, so I started to focus on soccer,” says Brian.
His biggest soccer influence was Dennis Sweeney, his coach at three different youth clubs. “Dennis was the person who really taught me how to play and I probably wouldn’t have done anything if it were not for him,” Mullan says.
Sweeney went on to coach in California where he won nine league titles and the 2004 CIF Sac-Joaquin Section Division I championship. In April of 2013 he stepped down as boys coach at Vintage High School in Napa, Calif.
Brian went on to Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, where he was the 1996-97 Colorado high school player of the year, leading Regis to the state 5A title as a senior and the 4A title as a junior. In the 5A title game he scored three goals and added an assist. With his team trailing 4-3, he scored two goals in the final three minutes for the win.
Stepping up in college
Brian and Kersten began dating in high school (she went to Highlands Ranch), and after graduation he headed to Creighton University in Nebraska to play for Coach Bret Simon (who later spent 11 years at Stanford), and Kersten went further east to play soccer for the University of North Carolina-Ashville. But after a year, when she wanted to come home, Brian convinced her to come to Creighton where she became one of the stars of the women’s team. “I think she outscored me,” he whispers, quietly.
Simon recalls his Colorado recruiting visit with the Mullan family. “I went out to watch him play and he was terrific,” Simon told me. “I did a home visit and his mom cooked us a great meal. We talked about Creighton. Brian didn’t have many questions - he was very quiet.”
Once on the Creighton campus, however, Mullan let his ability do the talking.
“From the very beginning, Brian made an impact with his work ethic, his competitiveness, his willingness to do whatever for the team,” says Simon. “He was a striker, but could play wing, midfield and occasionally was a right midfielder and a right back.”
Playing as a forward in college, he scored 19 goals during his senior year (2000-2001) and, along with Mike Tranchilla formed one of the top goal-scoring tandems in the nation that year, good enough to propel the Blue Jays all the way to the NCAA championship game.
It was during his time at Creighton where Brian started to get more serious about his education. Having suffered from dyslexia his entire life, reading had always been difficult. “School-wise I was never the best student,” he said. “It was horrible when I was young. But it got better through high school and college. I still have to work to keep it in check and that means reading as much as I can.”
It didn’t hurt that Kersten transferred to Creighton during his sophomore year. “I think it made him more confident that he could do more than everyone always thought he could do.”
Mullan was inducted into the Creighton Athletic Hall of Fame in 2008. He is second all-time in games played with 88, sixth in scoring (36 goals) and fourth in assists (32). Four times he was an all-Missouri Valley Conference selection.
Sigi Schmid: We were always high on him
Following college, Mullan signed his first professional contract in 2001 with the Los Angeles Galaxy, coached by Sigi Schmid (now at Seattle).
“When we were at the MLS Super Draft, we had our eyes on Brian but we didn’t think he would be available," Schmid said. "When he was still on the board (No. 9), we definitely thought he was the best player available for us. We knew he had a passion about going for goal, could take on people off the dribble and was also a tough customer - all things that made him a good choice for us.”
Schmid said the Galaxy tried Mullan up front during the two years he was with the club. “But we came to the conclusion that he was probably most suited for the right wing position. Unfortunately, we had a guy there by the name of Cobi Jones and I knew we were not going to move Cobi.
"I spoke with Frank Yallop and told him that I thought Brian would be a good player in this league so we traded him to San Jose. Had we not had Cobi on our roster, I would not have traded him away.”
Mullan played four times for the U.S. National Team during an era where the USA was loaded with right-sided attacking players such as Landon Donovan, Steve Ralston, Eddie Lewis, Earnie Stewart and others. He was on the USA roster for one of the 2006 World Cup qualifiers against Jamaica.
Home sweet home
Kersten says the move back to Colorado, aside from the couple wanting to be home, had to do with lifestyle. “In Houston, Brian felt he was just living to play soccer,” she recalls. “He would train very hard in the morning, losing about eight pounds in the heat and humidity. Then he would sit home all day, pounding Gatorades.
"He couldn’t go to the pool. His whole life was soccer. Dom (Kinnear) knew he wasn’t living the life he wanted to live so, thankfully, he traded Brian instead of selfishly keeping him.”
Returning to Colorado in September of 2010 after playing 22 games that season in Houston, he immediately became a part of the lineup and played an integral role in Colorado’s run to the MLS Cup title, the fifth such cup-winning team in which he had played a part.
Though Brian’s professional playing career is ending, the Mullans and their two sons are firmly rooted to the area. Kersten is coach of the boys soccer team at Smoky Hill High School in Aurora and was named coach of the year by the Colorado High School Coaches Association in 2012.
“You begin thinking what you do next - and it’s hard to decide after doing for so long what every kid wants to do,” he says. “But to me it comes down to doing something that will help people.”
So help people he will by following in the footsteps of his mother, Jackie, and enter the field of nursing. He’s been taking preparatory courses and plans to begin formal study at Regis University in January.
What if soccer calls in some other form? “This is our home, and we were gone a long time. There would be very little chance of us leaving here,” he says.
That switchable soccer button, with new, fresh adventures beckoning, is clearly in the 'off' position.