Few players at Real Salt Lake this season exemplified the mantra USL's been carting around — "#Path2Pro" — like Real Salt Lake's Luke Mulholland.
Mulholland, who played Division II soccer for four years while attending Wingate University in North Carolina, came to the United States after receiving college offers when playing with the soccer team at Preston College. They'd come to the States to play in some tournaments, and he received offers. Wingate, despite its Division II status, won out — and it was probably an academic decision.
Making the jump in England from college to professional play isn't necessarily the easiest thing in the world. As a frame of reference, Preston College has a football academy that partners with AFC Fylde, who have only just moved up to the sixth division in England. Making the leap from the sixth, seventh or eighth division to, say, the Championship, let alone the Premier League is almost always a foregone conclusion. Sure, you can be a professional playing in the fifth division — Conference Premier — but some of the teams playing there are still semi-professional. Contracts there can make MLS developmental contracts look desirable.
Which isn't to say that Luke Mulholland couldn't have made it in England, or that he would have wallowed in the semi-professional leagues for a few years, but it's still something to think about. Preston College lists some players who have made it in the game, and you know who tops the list? Luke Mulholland. Rightly so — a couple other players to have played in the U.S. made the list too, but they're names you'd gloss over easily. David Schofield, who played for Harrisburg City Islanders until 2011, and John Cunliffe, who played a combined 27 games with Chivas USA and San Jose Earthquakes in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
And that's about the extent of it. There are some players listed as having played with Fylde, but the list isn't glamorous or extensive. Jumping to Wingate University doesn't offer much glamour, either, but midway through his college career, he started playing for Reading United, too. Reading — then the Rage — is a USL PDL team that's had a lot of success developing MLS players. Their list of notable former players is extensive. It's hard to say if they simply bring on good players or if they're extremely proficient in development, but there's clearly something there.
And it's hard, too, to say whether that's down to Reading United that Luke Mulholland has transpired to hit MLS levels, or if it's because he's pushed himself harder and harder. If we're to be honest, it's probably a strong mix of the two. Mulholland is clearly and obviously a talented, hard-working person and player. From there, Mulholland's career took him to USL Pro's Wilmington Hammerheads (where he played against RSL in the US Open Cup) and NASL's Minnesota Stars (now Minnesota United) and Tampa Bay Rowdies.
If there's a poster boy for "#Path2Pro," it's probably not somebody like Bradford Jaimeson IV, who has been a part of New York Cosmos, Chivas USA, and LA Galaxy academies, as well as United States U-17 and U-20 teams. He'll probably turn into a good player, but his path is one taken by a superbly talented young player who has had some luck with opportunities.
We don't need to look any further than Luke Mulholland for that claim: From Preston College to Wingate University and USL PDL's Reading United, then from NASL to Real Salt Lake — that's a path befitting a hard-working, talented player who created his own opportunities.