KENNESAW, Ga. – Jake Mulraney thought that his debut for Atlanta United FC was going to be in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. He had heard so much about the atmosphere inside the spaceship-like structure in downtown Atlanta and wanted to experience it for himself.
Instead, Mulraney’s first touch for the club came on the hybrid turf at Fifth Third Bank Stadium on the campus of Kennesaw State University. Instead of 70,000 fans, there was a bit more than 8,000.
Still, Mulraney wasn’t let down. He was wowed by the energy Atlanta United supporters showed in the Five Stripes’ 3-0 victory over FC Motagua in the second leg of a Concacaf Champions League match-up Tuesday.
“Mad,” Mulraney said of his first impressions of the Atlanta United fans. “I thought this match was in Mercedes. I was looking forward to it. I didn’t realize it was here. They were really good though. Crazy. It’s mad down there on the far end. I love that though.”
Likewise, Mulraney didn’t disappoint in his first match wearing the Five Stripes’ kit. The Irishman started, played 81 minutes and contributed to Atlanta’s Round of 16 victory.
What’s more, Mulraney wasn’t at full strength. After the game, he put his fitness level at about “70 percent.” Still, he showed that his skills, his defending and his speed can be a weapon to Atlanta along the left flank.
“One of his strengths is going at guys one-v.-one and putting them on their back foot,” goalkeeper Brad Guzan said of Mulraney. “So, I thought that part was good.”
Featuring at left wingback, Mulraney finished the game with 10 completed passes, two completed dribbles, four recoveries, six duel wins, three tackles, a foul won and two clearances – a stat line that shows his versatility and willingness to play both ways. He also attempted a shot and fired in five crosses from the left wing.
By the time manager Frank de Boer called for Mulraney to be subbed off, it was clear that the Irishman was gassed. That’s largely due to Mulraney missing several training sessions recently to resolve visa issues so he could finally suit up for the Five Stripes. He went to Ireland and back last week and was unable to travel with the team to Honduras for the first leg of the Champions League bout.
Neither de Boer or Mulraney seem worried about his fitness going forward though.
“You always want to (be with the team). Especially when you have a couple of games and you feel fit, and then you have to go back and you miss a week,” Mulraney said. “Me personally, I lose fitness pretty quick. You can do all the running in the world, but it’s a lot different than playing an actual match.
“I get fit quick. More training, one or two more games, and I’ll be fit, no problem.”
The 23-year-old Mulraney was acquired by Atlanta in January via transfer from Scottish side Heart of Midlothian FC. In the club’s announcement, his pace and direct style of play was praised by Atlanta United technical director Carlos Bocanegra.
As a youth, Mulraney spent time in the academies of Dublin, Ireland-based Crumlin United and English clubs Nottingham Forest and Queens Park Rangers. Mulraney made his professional debut at the age of 19 in 2015, playing on-loan with Dagenham & Redbridge, a club in the fifth tier of English football.
Mulraney signed with Scottish side Inverness Caledonian Thistle in 2016, then joined Hearts in 2018. In 116 combined appearances for the two Scottish clubs, he tallied five goals and 16 assists. Mulraney has also appeared in several matches with the Irish youth national teams.
In Scotland, Mulraney typically played a little bit further up the pitch as a winger or a wide midfielder. So, while he showed well in his first stint as a wingback, he feels like he can be better.
“I still need to get a little bit used to it,” Mulraney said. “Defensively, I need to work harder, I need to get fitter. But that’ll come.”
De Boer left the Champions League match feeling optimistic about the potential of both his new wingbacks in Mulraney and Brooks Lennon. Tuesday was Lennon’s first start for the club too.
“They have the speed and also the work ethic to play this kind of position,” de Boer said. “They can play the whole flank and they did really well.”
Because Mulraney was unavailable and Lennon wasn’t 100 percent healthy in the first leg, de Boer went with a more conservative formation in Honduras and played a four-man back-line. But on Tuesday, with Mulraney and Lennon owning the areas near the touchlines, de Boer deployed a three-man back-line. It allowed Atlanta to throw more numbers forward on the attack, and Mulraney and Lennon are fast enough to retreat on defense if needed.
On the left side of the defense, Mulraney has already begun to build a bond with Anton Walkes, who played left centerback. The two have bonded off the pitch over shared experiences.
“I think he’s a great guy. We speak a lot. We both come from (the U.K.) so, we’ve got a few similarities and a few connections in terms of that,” Walkes said. “He’s got family with him; I’ve got family with me. We’re in the same boat and it’s good to have someone alongside you that you can communicate well with. When you’re close with someone off the pitch, it makes it easier when you step out there.”
As Mulraney’s fitness and chemistry with his new teammates continue to grow, show should his contributions to victories for the Five Stripes.