Step into the office of Richard Mulrooney, and you’ll find a cramped space that almost resembles a miniature museum of American soccer more than the base of operations of a collegiate head coach.
On one wall hangs a framed U.S. Soccer jersey. Next to that is an old team photo of Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo autographed by the team. Resting on a nearby shelf is a soccer ball emblazoned with the words, “San Jose Earthquakes 2003 MLS Cup Champions.” The list goes on and on.
Every one of these items is an artifact of Mulrooney’s illustrious 12-year professional soccer career, spanning MLS and 14 appearances with the United States Men’s National Team.
Mulrooney has found success at seemingly every stop in his life-long soccer journey.
In his four seasons of collegiate soccer at Creighton the team made one trip to the Final Four and he was named an All-American in his senior year. In the MLS he won three total league championships, two with San Jose in 2001 and 2003, and another with Houston in 2007. He also was selected to the MLS All-Star Game three times.
So it should come as no surprise that in 2014 the Memphis men’s soccer team finished 9-7-2 in Mulrooney’s first season at the helm of his hometown team. The Tigers even dropped the hammer on a nationally ranked St. Louis squad 4-0 in only Mulrooney’s third game as head coach.
Perhaps most surprising about Mulrooney’s path to soccer success is that his road started exactly the same as nearly any kid in America who’s played the game — in the church leagues. He played there until the age of nine, until he eventually made the switch to competitive leagues because he was, to be blunt, way too good.
“I was scoring eight, nine, ten goals a game and we were winning, you know, 11-6,” Mulrooney said. “My parents approached me, and it was my friends, it was tough. All my friends played in my church league, but they were just like you probably have the option to go play competitive if you want. If you want to stay with your friends we’ll support you on that, or if you want to test the waters and see how far you can go with this we’ll support you on that too.”
Mulrooney made the choice to go the competitive route, trying out and making an under-12 team at the age of nine. Initially he didn’t think about a soccer future beyond college, but after a successful four-year career at Creighton he was taken third overall in the MLS Draft by the San Jose Earthquakes, and immediately found success with the team, making the MLS All-Star Game in 2002 and 2004 and scoring a goal in the 2003 MLS Cup Final.
Despite all the accomplishments at the club level, his 14 appearances and many more selections for the United States National Team might be what Mulrooney is most proud of.
“It’s a surreal honor to be there knowing that you’re one of 25 guys considered by the national team coach at that time to be the best players for that particular game,” Mulrooney said. “To think of how many kids play soccer and how many kids wanted to be in that spot, I didn’t take it for granted any day. I enjoyed trainings, the travel and just to wear the patch on your shirt, the American flag. That’s who I represented for those games or those camps, and it still gives me chills just thinking about it.”
As Mulrooney has transitioned into his coaching career, having been around so many immensely talented players and coaches in his playing days has helped him either directly or indirectly in coaching. In San Jose Mulrooney played alongside American soccer legend Landon Donovan for multiple years. With the national team Mulrooney played under Bruce Arena, who is the current manager of the Los Angeles Galaxy and arguably the most successful American soccer coach of all-time.
Mulrooney continued to rattle off the names: Frank Yallop, Dominic Kinnear, Sigi Schmid — all coaches that have stuck around and found success in MLS for over a decade.
Despite all of the well-known names, the one that’s helped Mulrooney the most is one that’s probably unknown to most American soccer fans — Bret Simon. Simon was Mulrooney’s college coach at Creighton, and the two became friends even after they both had moved on from Creighton.
In 2001 Simon took the coaching job at Stanford University. Mulrooney was nearby, playing for the San Jose Earthquakes. During that time Mulrooney served as a volunteer assistant coach for Simon when he was able to, allowing him to get a head start on his coaching career while he still had nearly his entire playing career ahead of him.
According to Mulrooney, this experience and his playing career has much better prepared him for the head coaching job at Memphis. He played four years of soccer at Creighton, so he knows the college game much better than other coaches who might jump into the NCAA with a background only in club soccer. He can relate to his players, because 20 years ago he was in their shoes.
But despite all this, Mulrooney’s job is far from easy, and his duties cover far more than what most people might expect.
“The biggest challenge has been that I’m the men’s soccer head coach, but there’s 10 other hats you have to wear,” the second-year head coach said. “I’m going over Nike orders right now, I’m going through transcripts, I’m going through making sure kids are eligible, I’m making sure my kids went to study hall. It’s not necessarily hard, but it’s a challenge that I’d like to be watching (film) right now, but there’s the off the field thing, and we wouldn’t be here right now without the University, so school comes first and I’ve got to apply myself to that, and then soccer a close second.”
This season, Mulrooney’s job on the field hasn’t been easy either. The team found success last year, but began this season as flat as possible, with five losses, a draw and only one goal in the first six games of the season.
Mulrooney has been able to right the ship somewhat, going a respectable 3-3-3 since that dreadful start, but the Tigers still finished the regular season with a losing record of 3-9-4. The team has consistently been able to out-shoot its opponents, but has had trouble finding ways to turn those shots into goals.
According to record alone Memphis’ 2015 season was not a successful one, but the team trotted out a very young roster night in and night out, and the season taught the team a lot that they’ll be able to use in the seasons ahead.
“I’m positive about it,” Mulrooney said about the team’s future. “I’ve said it all year, our record isn’t great, but I don’t think it’s from a lack of effort. I think there’s players on this team that have developed. I think that the schedule that I’ve set up, we may have bit off a little more than we could chew, but I also think that those games are starting to pay off now.”
Mulrooney’s head coaching career is still young and it’s anybody’s guess as to where that road will take him or how successful he’ll be, but if his days as a player are any indication, the future looks bright for Mulrooney and Memphis soccer.
Current Memphis Tigers men’s soccer coach Richard Mulrooney in action for the San Jose Earthquakes in the 2003 MLS Cup Final, he scored a goal in the Earthquakes’ triumph.