- - Wednesday, August 31, 2016

There’s a message Patrick Mullins carries with him every time he takes the field, scrawled in black marker across the front of his shin guards.

“First. Last. Only.”

It’s a mantra Mullins adopted a year ago, after attending a church service in New York. Delivering his homily, the priest spoke of how he approached every opportunity to address his congregation as if it were his first Mass, his last Mass and his only Mass.

“So the type of effort, the type of concentration and enthusiasm that he put into it, he wanted to be that way for every Mass,” Mullins recalled. “With something like soccer, where it’s an everyday thing and a grind where you really have to come in and put the work in, I thought that was perfect for the attitude that I want to have as a player.”

That outlook was put to the test over Mullins‘ time with New York City FC. Backing up Spanish legend David Villa, the University of Maryland product made 24 appearances last season — scoring six goals — but saw the field in just 7 of 21 matches for NYCFC in 2016.

So the club dealt Mullins to D.C. United in mid-July, acquiring allocation money and an international roster slot for the 24-year-old striker. After notching his first professional hat trick in a 6-2 win over the Chicago Fire on Saturday, Mullins finds himself with five goals in seven games — already enough to lead a 7-8-11 United team that had ranked among the league’s worst attacks.

Mullins has made the players around him better as well, serving as a strong and shrewd outlet up top to help invigorate the attacking midfield trident of Luciano Acosta, Patrick Nyarko and Lloyd Sam.

“He’s in good spots,” United coach Ben Olsen said. “He’s predictable in the way he plays and he seems to be finding a relationship or two with some attacking players, in particular Lucho, and that’s healthy.”

Defender Taylor Kemp added: “He’s a poacher in the box, which is good for us because we were hurting for goals a little bit. He works hard, holds the ball up in some tough spots and does a lot of the dirty work.”

United and Mullins have made for a perfect marriage after years of flirtation. While the club could have taken the former Terrapin with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 draft, United instead traded back a slot and selected defender Steve Birnbaum, who has since grown into an All-Star and U.S. national team regular.

Mullins, meanwhile, surprisingly dropped to the New England Revolution at No. 11. Two and a half years later, Mullins has returned to the D.C. area — where he won the Hermann Trophy as college soccer’s top male player in 2012 and 2013 — as an evolved athlete.

“He’s changed quite a bit,” said Kemp, who played with Mullins at Maryland. “He’s definitely smarter, his movement is very good and a lot of things have just grown about him.”

As Mullins prepares to face NYCFC (11-8-8) on Thursday at Yankee Stadium, there are no hard feelings about the lack of opportunities he received this season under first-year coach Patrick Vieira.

Mullins instead fixates on the lessons learned in a locker room featuring Villa, Andrea Pirlo and Frank Lampard, with whom he forged a particularly strong connection after idolizing the English soccer icon growing up.

“I definitely had a very positive experience there in both of my seasons,” Mullins said. “It was a place I sunk a lot of myself into to try to put my stamp on the club and also try to become a part of that club. When you have the opportunity as a pro to play against a former team like that, it can definitely be challenging in terms of managing emotions.

“But I think that’s just something you have to deal with and something where I know what to expect, and I expect myself to deal with it.”

Although Mullins‘ MLS breakout has felt like a long time coming, he did bag goals in four of his first five matches as a rookie with New England. But after that initial scoring streak, he went two years without starting more than three consecutive games for the Revolution or NYCFC.

Now that Mullins has found a groove, he’s reminded to fend off complacency every time he pulls his socks over those shin guards.

At that moment, the message reverberates: “First. Last. Only.”

“I always did believe I had the capabilities to be a starter on a team, and that’s what I always wanted,” Mullins said. “But at the same time, that’s something that you earn every day. I put my head down and worked hard from the second I got here — but that doesn’t guarantee anything going forward.”

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