When Earthquakes midfielder Richard Mulrooney found himself 10 yards to the right of the Fire goal in the second half of Sunday's MLS Cup at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., he knew what to do: He looked for striker Landon Donovan. "I don't know who in their right mind wouldn't," Mulrooney says. "But then I saw that he was moving away, taking defenders away from me." Having a clear shot at the net was an unfamiliar experience for Mulrooney, who hadn't scored all season, but he deftly placed a right-footed shot inside the far post for the decisive goal in San Jose's 4-2 triumph.
While the 21-year-old Donovan tallied twice and earned game MVP honors in the Quakes' second Cup victory in three seasons, Mulrooney might have gained the most from the triumph, affirming his place among the top U.S. players with a stellar afternoon. He stymied striker Damani Ralph on a timely tackle in the first half and provided support against DaMarcus Beasley's runs in the second. As Donovan puts it, "Richie's a rock."
Mulrooney, 27, has been a steady performer since San Jose drafted him out of Creighton in 1999. He moved from right to central midfielder after his rookie season and proved to be an excellent defender and capable distributor. "I never really broke into the youth national teams growing up [in Memphis]," says Mulrooney, "but I always had confidence I could play at that level. It was a matter of being consistent and showing people."
He has done that over the last three years, particularly in 2001, when San Jose won its first tide. U.S. coach Bruce Arena invited him to national team camp following that season but told him before practice began that he wouldn't make the 2002 World Cup roster and to consider it a learning experience. Arena brought Mulrooney into camp again last January even though he had missed the 2002 playoffs with an ankle injury, and he was on the 25-man roster for the Gold Cup in July. "I owe a lot to Bruce because that month playing at that high level prepared me for the season," Mulrooney says.
Arena isn't the only one to have noticed the 5'9", 160-pound Mulrooney's improving play. Several Spanish teams hoped to sign him when his contract expired after this season, but in August MLS signed him to a multiyear extension at $200,000 per year. Mulrooney is expecting to be in the national team camp when it opens this month, buoyed by his rare goal (only the fourth in his career) on a day when high-scoring Chicago forwards Ralph and Ante Razov whiffed on numerous chances.
"Every team needs a guy like me," Mulrooney says. "I take pride in making the tackle or clearing the ball off the line. I don't need to score 10 goals a season. Hey, one goal, in the MLS final—that's enough for me."