ST. PETERSBURG — After Luke Mulholland scored the series-clinching goal against Carolina on Saturday, propelling the Tampa Bay Rowdies into the NASL final, the 24-year-old midfielder dove headfirst over the advertising boards lining the field.
Mulholland collected himself, celebrated with teammates, then sprinted down the field while pulling the front of his jersey tight to highlight the Rowdies logo across the chest.
With the 4,000-plus fans at Al Lang Field near delirium, he punctuated the most important goal in current Rowdies history by jumping high and delivering a flying uppercut into the night air.
A year ago, Mulholland, then of the Minnesota Stars, was the villain for Tampa Bay after scoring the goal that knocked the Rowdies out of the playoffs in the quarterfinals. Now, as he ends his first season with the Rowdies, Mulholland has entered rock-star status with the team's fans.
"I think the fans enjoy the way I play, and I think when I fall over those (advertising) boards, they have a good laugh at me," Mulholland said, grinning.
Tonight, Tampa Bay plays the first match in a two-leg final series against the Stars. For the right to hoist the Soccer Bowl trophy for the second time as NASL champions — the original franchise did it in its 1975 inaugural season — the Rowdies turn to a star of their own.
"He's an infectious type of character, for sure," coach Ricky Hill said. "From Day 1, he comes into work every day and really puts his heart and soul into his performance. He gets upset if he doesn't do well in training or in matches. Luke really does wear his heart on his sleeve."
That passion has immediately endeared him to Rowdies fans. When Mulholland makes a positive play — and he has six goals and six assists this season — the Ralph's Mob fan group chants his name in sing-song fashion.
When Mulholland joined the Rowdies, he requested the team print 500 business cards for him so he could pass them around for coaching opportunities, and, he jokes, to women the bachelor found appealing.
He's the team prankster and $500 poorer because of it. When he was left behind in Tampa for the regular-season finale at Carolina, Mulholland gained revenge against teammate Draymond Washington for a previous prank by covering the defender's car in flour, egg yolk and birdseed. After a couple of days baking in the Florida sun, the egg yolk discolored the paint, leaving Mulholland to foot the bill for Washington's insurance deductible.
Mulholland maintains the cost was worth it.
"It is his character that I think gets him to where he's got," said Rowdies technical director Perry Van Der Beck, himself an iconic figure from the original franchise. "As far as being a technical director, I'm about a player's character. … Obviously I think we all have good players, but it's just that character, day in and day out, that takes you to the next level."
In 2011 Mulholland joined Minnesota in the last month of the regular season and sparked a run to the NASL title. Now he's on the opposite side, trying to re-create that same magic for a Rowdies team that has fully embraced the native of Preston, England.
“(Minnesota's) definitely done well to get back to a championship final, but there's no way I can let them win it," he said. "It's definitely the year of the Rowdies."