Toronto FC forward Patrick Mullins returns to Yankee Stadium on Wednesday for a big game on an emotional day.
It's a clash of two teams in fine form.
New York City FC (15-5-8) has won a club-record five straight to move into first place in the Eastern Conference and has lost just once in 15 home games (9-1-4) this season. Toronto (11-10-8) is unbeaten in seven matches in all competitions (4-0-3) and can jump two places into fourth with a win.
And they meet on the 18th anniversary of 9/11.
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In advance of the anniversary, NYCFC players and club officials went to the National September 11 Memorial, which honours the 2,977 people killed in the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center site, at the Pentagon and near Shanksville, Pa. — as well as the six people killed in the World Trade Center bombing in February 1993.
Taken from New England in the expansion draft, Mullins played for NYCFC in 2015 and '16 and scored on opening day at Yankee Stadium. Traded to D.C. United in July 2016, he played at the New York Red Bulls on another 9/11 anniversary.
"That's a day that I remember very well in my childhood for obviously the tragedy that it was and the fear as you sat and watched your TV from afar," recalled the 27-year-old New Orleans native.
"For me being in Louisiana and just not really knowing exactly what was going on in New York City and other places — Washington, D.C. — at the time, to be able to now have some perspective years later and have a memorial type of day on 9/11 with a match in Yankee Stadium ... it's very special and something I have thought about in the practices and preparation for this game."
Toronto is coming off a 5-1 weekend win in Cincinnati that saw Mullins, taking over for the injured Jozy Altidore, score his second goal for the club. Since arriving in a July trade from Columbus, Mullins has made six appearances for TFC, including four starts.
He has shown an impressive work ethic, as well as a bit of a mean streak on the pitch. Mullins is fully committed.
"The amount of work he puts out for the group makes things a lot easier for everybody else," said Toronto coach Greg Vanney.
"He's a pretty soft-spoken guy but he for sure has an edge. Which you have to have, I think, if you're going to be successful as a professional," Vanney added.
FC fans may have forgiven him for scoring his first MLS goal against Toronto, a left-footed rocket past Julio Cesar in May 2014 at BMO Field.
There have been more than a few chapters to Mullins' story.
About to enter eighth grade, he and his family had to flee New Orleans to escape hurricane Katrina in 2005. They were no strangers to hurricane evacuations but this time the family home was engulfed.
After 15 years in the same house, the Mullins' lived in six different places over the next five months. But looking back, Mullins sees positives.
"We were living a life like any normal family ... and then within a week, your life's changed," he said. "That was a defining moment in my childhood and I would say in my life, which I'm proud to say was a positive defining moment. Because my family's very strong. We stayed together throughout the entire process of returning to the city and finding a school for my (older) brother and myself. And then, of course, my parents getting back to work as well.
"We really, I would say, bonded together even closer as a family because of that. It's something that I definitely cherish having in my life — that family experience."
It put a lot of things in perspective.
"And it sure makes you happy to have soccer in your life," Mullins continued. "Because when we were moving all over the place, that was the one constant for me and my brother. To take a few hours out of the day and go kick the ball around at a local club was better than waiting around thinking and wondering what had happened to your house or the city that you knew."
Mullins went on to star at the University of Maryland where he won the M.A.C. Hermann Trophy as the best NCAA male soccer player in back-to-back seasons.
As a pro, he holds the MLS record for fastest four goals in a game. He did it for D.C. United against San Jose in September 2017, scoring in the 57th, 60th, 68th and 88th minutes.
Mullins, who has 26 goals and 10 assists in 121 career regular-season MLS appearances (61 starts), is relishing life with Toronto — and the challenge that awaits in Yankee Stadium.
"We're excited about it. Because they're an opponent that presents a lot of challenges ... They've been on a really good run of form themselves and there's a reason they're at the top of the table.
"So I think we're really salivating at the prospect of what the match (Wednesday) could be like."
TORONTO FC (11-10-8) at NEW YORK CITY FC (15-5-8)
Wednesday, at Yankee Stadium
OUT: Toronto FC fullback Justin Morrow continues to deal with a quad strain. NYCFC is missing Brazil's Heber, its leading scorer with 14 goals, due to a quad injury.
BACK: Goalkeeper Sean Johnson was released early by the U.S. team, allowing him to return to NYCFC ahead of Tuesday's friendly with Uruguay. Forward Jozy Altidore (quad) and Chris Mavinga (ankle) have returned to training with Toronto.
HISTORY: Toronto has yet to win in five trips (0-2-3) to Yankee Stadium. TFC won 4-0 when the two met at BMO Field on March 29.
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