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VOL. 133 | NO. 162 | Thursday, August 16, 2018

USL Memphis Coach Tim Mulqueen Embraces Expansion Challenge

By Don Wade

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USL Memphis named Tim Mulqueen (standing) its first coach on Aug. 15 at AutoZone Park. He brings more than 20 years of experience in the MLS and internationally. Team president Craig Unger (seated) said Mulqueen’s “down-to-earth” personality will be a good fit. (Submitted)

Let’s get the hard part out of the way first, the thing that might make you resistant to welcoming your first USL Memphis head coach. Tim Mulqueen is a rabid New York Knicks fan. Yes, the same team that now employs former Grizzlies coach David Fizdale.

But as Mulqueen explained in the press box of AutoZone Park the other day, where the present view is of a baseball diamond and not a soccer field, he came by this devotion honestly. He grew up in the Northeast and so he rooted for Walter “Clyde” Frazier, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and all the rest. 

“My poor kids,” Mulqueen said. “I’ve made them Knicks, Rangers, Giants and Mets fans. So they’ve suffered a little bit.”

Mulqueen’s task here, of course, is helping USL Memphis sporting director Andrew Bell build a team from the ground up and encouraging the Memphis community to embrace its soccer club just like it does its Memphis Grizzlies and University of Memphis Tigers.

Team president Craig Unger believes Mulqueen, 52, is well-suited to the task.

“He’s a soccer guy, but he doesn’t hold that over the top,” said Unger, who is also president of the Memphis Redbirds. “He loves to explain the game. If you have questions, he’s going to give you an answer and work with you to understand why, how and everything else.”

Mulqueen has coached in college, in Major League Soccer – including winning the MLS Cup while head coach of the Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City) back in 2000 – and has been the goalkeepers coach for Team USA.

His all-time favorite soccer memory: “Walking on the field for the first Olympic game that I coached in, in 2008 in Beijing, against Japan. It was a tremendous moment for me, representing my country in the Olympics was beyond anything I ever dreamed of.”

He is in Memphis taking on a new, and not to be underestimated, challenge of leading an expansion team in part because of his longstanding relationship with USL Memphis adviser and Team USA star goalkeeper Tim Howard.

Howard is also captain for the MLS Colorado Rapids, who will play Tulsa Roughnecks FC of the USL in a Sept. 1 exhibition at AutoZone Park.

Mulqueen first saw Howard when he was 12 years old and he came to one of his clinics. Howard’s raw talent turned the coach’s head.

“He was the best athlete among a group of guys that went on to become very accomplished goalkeepers,” said Mulqueen, himself a former goalkeeper at St. Joseph’s University and in pro leagues up until 1995. “But Tim jumped out at me as the first athlete that could play basketball, football, who was choosing to play soccer as well. He could jump higher than everybody, he was quick, and he had unbelievable reflexes.”

At the beginning of Howard’s pro career, Mulqueen coached him with the New York MetroStars, today the New York Red Bulls. They stayed close and over the last few months all of their soccer conversations kept ending with talk of what’s happening in Memphis and its new USL franchise.

“Here’s a guy I have tremendous respect for, who’s seen everything in the world of soccer, and he’s like a kid on Christmas morning talking about Memphis,” Mulqueen said.

When Mulqueen started coaching with the New York MetroStars in 1996, MLS was just launching. Everyone had a start-up team. But there was also a combine and a draft. Equal footing on the way up, in other words.

The assignment ahead is tougher. And why Bell believed Mulqueen was the right man for the job.

“He checked all the boxes and then when he came here we hit it off,” Bell said. “He can pick a player. Listen, I know a lot of people. Tim Howard knows a lot of people. Tim Mulqueen knows a lot of people. So the wider we can spread our net the better.”

The 1996 experience in New York will help, Mulqueen says, but this is different. And the players of yesterday are, in general, no match for the players of today. 

The game has changed, too. 

“This can be about how I view the game and how the game has evolved from 1996 to 2018,” Mulqueen said. “Just like every other sport in America, we have better athletes, better-conditioned athletes … they’ve been exposed to much more soccer than the previous generation so their soccer IQ is high. 

“If you were to take the same players who were professionals in MLS in 1996, they probably wouldn’t make USL teams now.”

As for Mulqueen’s New York Knicks fandom, well, Bell is already working on a top-down directive: 

“I’m a Grizzlies fan, mate, so there’s you answer.”

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