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Patrick Mullins, Darren Mattocks battling to become D.C. United’s starting striker

February 1, 2018 GMT

For the first time in a four-year professional career, Patrick Mullins kicked off the 2017 MLS season as a club’s unquestioned starting striker.

The University of Maryland product earned that status with a prolific run the previous campaign, during which he scored eight goals in just 12 starts with D.C. United. The front office doubled down on that faith with a new contract, to boot.

But the 2017 season wasn’t kind to Mullins, or United. An early hamstring injury limited Mullins to just five starts before August. Although he ended the season with five goals, four of those came in one blowout win. United tied as the league’s lowest-scoring team, averaging less than a goal per game.

So when United looked to retool its roster this offseason, competition up top was a must. Enter Jamaican striker Darren Mattocks, a seventh-year veteran acquired in a December trade with the Portland Timbers.

“I don’t think any starting role is secure at the moment,” Mullins said. “That’s pro soccer, that’s how you want it to be if you’re a competitor, you’re hungry. I’m happy he’s here.”

As United opened preseason last week ahead of its 2018 opener at Orlando City on March 3, Mullins and Mattocks found themselves battling to be the club’s starting striker, with Bolivian prospect Bruno Miranda in the mix as well.

The No. 2 overall pick in the 2012 MLS draft out of Akron, Mattocks has offered flashes of potential but never scored more than the seven goals he managed during his rookie year with the Vancouver Whitecaps.

“I’m just focusing on getting better and better as preseason goes because every day you’ve got to put it in the coaches’ mind that you deserve the starting role,” Mattocks said. “For the team, that’s going to be good if you have two guys fighting for the top spot. But most definitely I didn’t come here to be on the bench, and that’s me being honest.”

The 27-year-old is coming off a strong second half of 2017, during which he started the final eight matches of the regular season and two playoff games for the first-place Timbers. An athletic alternative, Mattocks scored four goals last year while causing problems for opposing defenders with his speed and strength in the final third.

“He’s athletic, he’s fast, he can jump through the roof,” United captain Steve Birnbaum said. “It’s going to be useful for us. He’ll stretch the back line and create space underneath for playmakers like [Luciano Acosta] or whoever may be in there. I’m excited to see what he can do.”

Mullins, 25, is more of a traditional poacher who thrives by reading the game and burying the chances that fall to him. After the former New England Revolution and New York City FC forward struggled during that injury-plagued first half of 2017, his goal-scoring spurt occurred once United bolstered its midfield with midseason signings Paul Arriola, Zoltan Stieber and Russell Canouse.

“I’m very positive,” Mullins said. “I think the glass is half full for this group going into the year. It’s on us now. It’s the time to get to work, it’s the time to really show each other what we’re capable of.”

United still has an open “designated player” slot to potentially use on a big-money striker, but the club seems content to start the year with Mullins and Mattocks as the main options. While both players have lacked consistency over the course of their MLS careers, the club also sees two strikers capable of reaching a high ceiling in the right environment.

“They’ve brought in some great competition, and that’s only going to be good for those two,” veteran Nick DeLeon said. “It’s going to push Patrick, it’s going to push Darren, it’s going to push some other guys fighting for that spot which in turn makes for better trainings, makes harder trainings, and hopefully brings better results on the weekends.”