TAMPA — Luke Mulholland's winning goal, the one that grounded a promising 2011 postseason run for third-seeded Tampa Bay before it ever took flight, barely had enough steam to cross the goal mouth.
The ball bounced lazily past Tampa Bay goalkeeper Jeff Attinella, about a foot inside the far post. After the fact, Mulholland admitted he was aiming his 20-yard free kick for the near post.
Mulholland's shot actually deflected off the outstretched leg of Shane Hill manning the middle of Tampa Bay's three-man wall, redirecting the ball past Attinella, who was leaning the opposite way.
As Mulholland ran over to the Minnesota Stars' bench to celebrate, a knowing smile forced its way onto his lips.
The goal wasn't pretty, Mulholland knew. The 1-0 score, however, was.
"I was surprised that it got in, but, obviously, in that situation, that game, we'll take any goal," Mulholland said. "I think it's just all about your hard work. It's going to pay off irrelevant to how the ball goes in. A goal is a goal, so the scrappy ones are as important as the good-looking goals."
After dispatching Tampa Bay in the quarterfinals of the NASL playoffs, Minnesota — behind two winning goals from Mulholland, a late-season roster addition at forward — went on to claim the league title.
He will try to provide the same spark for Tampa Bay this season, starting tonight as the Rowdies square off against Edmonton in their home opener at Al Lang Field. Mulholland, a Preston, England, native, was signed by the Rowdies during the offseason.
"He knocked us out. … I think he's got a few bruises from the boys to thank him for coming here and thank him for doing that," Rowdies coach Ricky Hill said jokingly. "Even though he's smaller in stature, he's brave in regards to how he receives the ball and uses the ball, and is always looking to penetrate and cause defenders problems. He's one of those players that will always be buzzing around, always looking to threaten, always looking to try to do creative things."
Mulholland, 23, joined Minnesota in September 2011 immediately after a successful professional debut season for the Wilmington Hammerheads of the USL Pro league. He led the Hammerheads with nine goals and 23 points, and he was named the league's rookie of the year.
Tampa Bay wanted to bring Mulholland in for a weeklong trial after his stay at Wilmington, but Minnesota snatched him up first for the remainder of the season. With the Rowdies switching to a 4-3-3 formation this season, he became a must-have addition, even if he was the enemy just a few months prior.
"If he doesn't score any goals this year, we'll give him grief about (last season's goal)," Attinella said, smiling.