(Reuters) - As the number of former English Premier League standouts plying their trade in Major League Soccer continues to grow, there is an unassuming Lancashire lad making just as big an impression in the United States.
Real Salt Lake midfielder Luke Mulholland may lack the name recognition of Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard but he is now a mainstay on a team entering the final stretch of the regular season hoping to secure a playoff berth.
“There are so many star players now in this league that you just have to remain focused on playing each game,” Mulholland, who as a boy cheered on former Liverpool captain Gerrard at Anfield, told Reuters.
Mulholland, born in Preston, England, spent the first three years of his professional career in the minor leagues before joining Real last year and enjoying a tremendous debut MLS season by notching six goals and seven assists in 31 matches.
On Saturday, Mulholland and his Real team mates will resume their growing rivalry by hosting the reigning MLS champion LA Galaxy, the team that eliminated them in last season’s Western Conference semi-final.
While Real’s title hopes ended after that defeat, they did get some revenge by beating LA in the July quarter-finals of the U.S. Open Cup, a tournament that includes teams from all three tiers of U.S. professional soccer plus top amateur leagues in the country.
It was during that U.S. Open Cup clash that Mulholland crossed swords with Gerrard for the first time, a moment he described as surreal.
“I did have to try and remain focused,” said Mulholland, who was credited with assisting on the winning goal five minutes from full time.
”He walked on the pitch to play attacking midfield and I was playing defensive midfield, I realized that I was marking him.
“I definitely did get star-struck but didn’t let it affect me until after the final whistle, I then tried to string a few words together to speak to him and tried in vain to get his jersey.”
In 2007 a then-18-year-old Mulholland left Preston College and accepted a full scholarship to play at Wingate University in North Carolina, having been spotted during a college football tour to the States.
After graduation in 2010, Mulholland excelled in the U.S. minor leagues where he won a North American Soccer League title with Minnesota in 2011 and Tampa Bay in 2012.
Those headline performances earned him recognition and eventually saw him sign with Real at the start of the 2014 MLS season. He has not looked back since.
Mulholland is more than holding his own, as he has two goals and two assists while starting in all but two of Real’s 25 games this season.
He and his Real team mates will be looking for a result on Saturday to keep their playoff hopes alive and hopefully set up another showdown with LA in the knockout playoff stages.
Mulholland may yet receive that Gerrard jersey, although he stresses that winning the three points and extending his team’s season is much more important.
Reporting by Richard Pignatelli in Scotland; Editing by Frank Pingue