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What role will Luke Mulholland play when he returns to RSL?

MLS: Orlando City SC at Real Salt Lake Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

To say that Luke Mulholland has been absent for Real Salt Lake this season would miss the real meat of the story, even if that’s literally the case.

The case of Mulholland’s absence has been an interesting one. In May, the player himself announced that he’d been dealing with chronic back pain since very early in preseason and would be undergoing surgery to fix that.

It showed: Mulholland didn’t make the field for more than a minute, coming on late in a 1-0 win over New York Red Bulls on March 17. From there, the silence around his status had me thinking that he was either a) injured, or b) had lost his spot to Damir Kreilach. Certainly both could have been the case, though I doubt it’s useful now to speculate about whether or not his “spot was lost,” given Kreilach has both been very good and hasn’t been injured.

But here we are now. Mulholland has been jogging, which is an important step on the road to recovery. He could find himself back in the team in a matter of weeks, if that recovery goes well. (I’ve purposefully not said how many weeks I think it could be, because I really have no clue, but I’d certainly measure in weeks and not months at this point.)

Obviously enough, Mulholland won’t be walking back into a starting spot when he’s fit again. Damir Kreilach has taken that role, and it sure doesn’t look like he’s giving it up. Pablo Ruiz has, potentially, taken up a backup role, though he has played just 17 minutes since his last start on May 19. It’s a bit of a puzzle, but Kreilach has been solid enough to not really need that backup. Will Mulholland resume that role?

I think Mulholland is best when he’s given the chance to influence the game, and most often that’s the case when he’s coming off the bench. Some players influence the game through steadiness and calm decision-making — those players, I think, are typically better off starting. Neither of those are particularly strong attributes for Mulholland.

Instead, he’s a player who will help break down a defense with energy, movement and aggression. Those are good qualities for a player to have, certainly — and the very best players can have both sets of attributes, but this is MLS, so it‘s going to be very rare to see those players here.

In a way, the arrival of Damir Kreilach — and the subsequent winning of that midfield spot — can put Mulholland back in a place where he can be most effective. Of course, if we’re going to think about Mulholland’s goalscoring ability, it’s important to look at some of the actual data.

Let’s take a second for this. How many goals do you think Luke Mulholland has scored off the bench for RSL? If you answered zero, congratulations. That’s legitimately how many of Mulholland’s 16 MLS goals he’s scored when not starting the match.

Now, I don’t think that should discount the value he can bring off the bench. His energy and ability to contribute to play isn’t just measured by how many goals he can score in certain situations.

Perhaps we should look beyond 2018, though. There’s a very clear question about whether he’d be happy as a backup player again — he hasn’t ever really been one for us, save for a chunk of time after Mike Petke arrived. Kreilach, as a supporting midfielder, has locked up that spot for the foreseeable future.

When it all comes down to it, this could very well be the last season we see Luke Mulholland playing for Real Salt Lake. Depending on how his recovery goes, he might not even play more than a minute in 2018, which would be a shame for a player that has, at times, been very important for us.

Perhaps I’m wrong, and he’ll return to Salt Lake for 2019. But if he does, he’ll likely be doing it with the knowledge that he’s more likely to be a backup than he is a starting player. As a player that just turned 30 last week, Mulholland might not be ready for that, and it’s hard to blame him.