Back in 2011, Luke Mulholland was finishing his college education at Wingate University, balancing his schooling while taking the first step in his professional life with the Wilmington Hammerheads.
Now five years later, he has come a long way, but it will come full circle for him as the Real Salt Lake midfielder faces Wilmington in the Fourth Round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup Tuesday night at Rio Tinto Stadium.
“It means a lot. This team gave me my first professional contract. They gave me a chance after a few teams in the USL turned me away at the door,” Mulholland said on ESPN 700 On Frame Monday night. “I’m really grateful for what Wilmington did for me back in 2011. I’ve got great, fond memories from my days there, but I’ve moved on and grown a lot since then. I’ll be playing with a lot of respect for the Wilmington Hammerheads.”
Mulholland scored in his debut for the Hammerheads, driving up from Wingate to Wilmington after taking courses early in the week for his first match only to turn and drive back the morning following his first professional match, a 1-0 win over the Rochester Rhinos.
He would go on to earn USL-Pro Best XI honors and was named the USL-Pro Rookie of the Year after scoring nine goals in a standout season. From there, he played with the NSC Minnesota Stars and Tampa Bay Rowdies in the NASL before finding a home with Real Salt Lake in 2014. Now in his third season in the Claret-and-Cobalt, he remembers his first club with fondness.
“It was a memorable goal. I enjoyed my celebration, then drove back to college the day after and was back in classes on the Monday,” he said. “Five years … it’s crazy looking back now and all the teams I’ve played for … it’s good. It makes me feel happy.”
During Mulholland’s three pro seasons before coming to Salt Lake, he went on some good runs in the Open Cup, including meeting Real Salt Lake with Wilmington in 2011. While with Tampa Bay, he was part of a squad that upset the Seattle Sounders in 2013, seeing first-hand the type of effort lower-level teams can find when they have the opportunity to put themselves on display for head coaches and general managers at the MLS level.
Now on the other side of that equation, Mulholland, who has 11 goals and 11 assists in 72 matches over three seasons with Real Salt Lake. On Tuesday, he will look to start another Open Cup run for RSL after the club reached the semifinal in 2015 and the final in the year prior to his arrival in 2013.
“There’s always upsets every year,” he said. “To make sure we’re not involved in one of those upsets, the main thing we’ve got focus on is taking control of the game straight from the first whistle, dictating play and possession and hopefully getting on the scoreboard early on to kill any hope that they have, really.”
Kickoff Tuesday night is scheduled for 8 p.m. MT and tickets are available at RSL.com.