By FRANCO PANIZO
HANOVER, N.J. — As the New York Red Bulls warmed up for their match against the Seattle Sounders this past Saturday, Eric Alexander was informed of something neat by teammate Dax McCarty. It turned out Alexander was just moments away from earning his 100th career start in MLS, an admirable achievement and one that speaks to his durability and versatility.
Those traits, however, have gone overlooked by a majority of Red Bulls fans and media members. Not just lately. Not just this season. But over the course of Alexander’s entire stint in New York.
Ever since Alexander was acquired via a trade with the Portland Timbers in one of Mike Petke’s first moves as Red Bulls head coach in February 2013, all the veteran midfielder has done is what has been asked of him – wherever it has been asked. Alexander, 26, has played every position along the midfield and is the only Red Bulls field player to have seen time in every single MLS match since the start of last year’s campaign.
That might be surprising to non-New York fans given the manner in which Alexander is heavily criticized by both local supporters and media, but the reality is that his underrated versatility and team-first mentality have been key in him carving out a significant role on a Red Bulls team that is not short on talent.
“I don’t understand the perception, if there is one, that he shouldn’t play as much as he does. I value Eric very high,” said Petke. “Obviously, there’s things that him along with everybody has to work on, but I don’t see where that comes from. He’s starting for a reason, he’s playing for a reason.
“I, we, value him extremely and I’m very happy and proud that he’s gotten 100 games. He’s the exact character that I want associated with this club. He has the exact mindset, he’s a team player and he has quality.”
Red Bulls players have echoed those sentiments ever since Alexander made the first of his combined 65 appearances in the regular season and playoffs last year, but there is a large disparity from how his teammates rate him and how some on the outside view him.
Whether it is because his game is not flashy or because he’s a modest man of few words in the press, Alexander is constantly the victim of much scrutiny over his playing time despite the fact that it is Petke, not him, who chooses the starting lineup. Fans often use Alexander as the verbal punching bag when things do not go well for the Red Bulls, with them labeling his performances as underwhelming and even questioning his place on the squad at times.
That was the case during several points in 2013, when Alexander played an integral part in helping the Red Bulls win their first significant piece of hardware. It has also been a common theme this season despite him recording eight assists and two goals, all while regularly being switched from right midfield to center midfield to left midfield without so much as a whimper.
“A willingness to do whatever we ask him to, with a smile on his face and a no-problem attitude and that includes when he doesn’t start,” said Petke of Alexander’s character. “Everything to me starts with attitude, attitude is a huge thing. If the world had attitudes like him … it would be a very peaceful, nice place and an easy place to live in.”
In a day and age when being extroverted and interactive on social media earns athletes plaudits, Alexander goes in the opposite direction. He has both a Twitter handle and Instagram account, but is not overly swank and is just as likely to post something about other professional players across sports than he is about himself.
That is not to say the unassuming and quiet Alexander is unaware of the negativity that floats out there on the social networks and elsewhere. He hears and sees it, and while he tries to not let it affect his even-keeled demeanor, there still is a part of him that wishes that things were different.
“I try not to pay attention to it,” Alexander told SBI. “Obviously, everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I’m not the flashiest guy. I don’t know. You hear it, but you just try and not pay attention to it. I think that’s just been one thing for me, you just kind of ignore it.
“If any of my teammates ever had opinions like that, that would be something I would take seriously and be something I try to work out with them or the coaches. From fans or media, obviously you want to change their opinion but you try to ignore it at the same time.”
Alexander admitting to even that much is a bit of a surprise. The 6-foot-1 midfielder often tries to avoid talking about himself during interviews and never complains about the role he is given, regardless of what it is.
Whether it is a calculated move or subconscious effort on his part to put the team’s needs ahead of his own, Alexander does at times face difficulties like any other player. He has recently found himself having to adjust to playing in a holding role in a 4-2-3-1 formation, a position that has helped New York drastically clean things up defensively but forced Alexander to ignore his instincts after years of serving as a capable two-way player.
Sacrificing for the club’s greater good is not an uncommon move from the oft-criticized Alexander – who earned a call-up to the U.S. Men’s National Team this past January – but that does not mean that his efforts should go unnoticed. Not when they require so much discipline from him.
“It’s not too difficult, but it’s not really easy,” said Alexander, again trying to put the club’s needs first. “It’s tough, like lately I’ve been playing more defensive and it’s hard when we advance the ball not to just want to go run into the box. I’ve got to balance out the shape and the team, and sometimes I just have to remind myself what position I’m playing.
“It’s not too difficult, but it’s a nice challenge and I enjoy it.”
Red Bulls fans are enjoying it, too. Their collective tone towards Alexander’s performances have slowly begun to change to a more positive undercurrent, as the Red Bulls have gone 3-0-1 in September with Alexander playing in the more withdrawn position next to McCarty.
Things could of course change, especially since Designated Player Tim Cahill is currently without a place in the lineup. But Alexander will be ready to move elsewhere if necessary, and he will likely do so without a complaint.
“Everyone knows how important he is to this squad,” said McCarty. “For me, you can’t be without a guy like that on this team: versatile, works for the team, not selfish, does whatever he’s asked.
“That’s how you win in this league. You have some special players and you have to have some players that are willing to be adaptable and guys that are willing to kind of sacrifice themselves for the team. That’s a guy that Eric is.”
The Red Bulls know it. Maybe observers on the outside will soon as well.
Alexander is not “much-maligned.” Roy Miller is much-maligned, but less so this season since his play has improved.
My problem with him is that he never seems tom care when he makes an error and he always seems to be jogging. How many times have you seen him make a bad pass or weak shot or defensive error and shrug. How many times have you seen him pull up on a run. The man just seems not to care and that is the kiss of death on a team where Henry, Robles, McCarty, Cahill, Sam, and even Armando visibly give a crap.
The other problem is that he always starts. Sam had to “prove” himself as did BWP, yet Alexander always has a spot.
As the other have noted, this article greatly overstates the fans’ negative perceptions of him. Alexander is a good role player with a good engine and valuable to the team for those reasons. He makes for a perhaps better than average role playing mid who occasionally shows a moment of real brilliance (really, there have been a few eye opening moments where you wonder why he can’t do it more often). His problem is that he is doesn’t really doesn’t fit into the Red Bulls scheme well. He isn’t a striker or forward. He isn’t a winger, so he can’t compliment Sam on the other side. He isn’t a 10 or especially creative mid (the position they have needed for years). He isn’t a holding mid either at least not tradionally. So maybe he “can play anywhere” in the sense that he can mold his midfield game to a moment, but he doesn’t excel at anything and the inconsistency of his role playing along with the limits of his game often leave him looking mistake prone. Red Bulls should be glad to have him, and I think the fans do appreciate him for what he brings. But there is a sense that a little better fit and quality would make a huge difference in the consistency of Red Bulls’ attack.
I think it’s fair to say that he flashed moments that leave the fan base waiting for him to breakout and demonstrate his true talent each and every game, but he often follows that up with a string of games where he isn’t necessarily bad, but just doesn’t play at the level at which he is capable as Chris described above.
He is clearly a talented and versatile player, and MLS teams need players like Alexander to make the team go, but just wish he’d figure out how to maximize his ability more consistently. He’s a good player, and a big part of the team, but has the talent to play an even bigger role…
As an RBNY fan, I can say that we don’t complain about Alexabder playing, per se, but rather lining up on the left, where he has ofetn started & plays without speed or crossing ability.
The article paints an unfair picture. It’s not Alexader we dislike, it’s Petke’s tactics.;
I think the issue with Alexander is that he was playing as an attacking left midfielder, a role in which he was miscast. I believe the criticisms were more to do with Petke’s choices than Alexander as an individual. He has been phenomenal as a holding midfielder and he is an asset to the team.
Exactly. In Alexander’s case, expectations drove perception. McCarty has always been a fan favorite, but if you asked him to play an attacking role, he would not look nearly as good. Credit to Petke for making adjustments to find Alexander (and others) their “correct” spots. It sounds like damning him with faint praise (because people value attackers over defenders), but Alexander’s real value became evident once Petke realized that he was better as a holding midfielder than as an attacker. Paradoxically, they guy now looking for a position is Tim Cahill, who did not fit into the front of the 4-4-2 (where BWP and Henry were) or into the attacking trio of the current 4-2-3-1 (where he is not as good a winger as the other wingers and not as good a playmaker as Henry).
I feel like this is an unjust representation of the fans’ opinion of Alexander. Many people thought he had a very good season last year. In part because not much was expected of him and partly because he had some games (Montreal at home comes to mind) where he was absolutely fantastic. Overall 2013 was a very VERY good season for him.
There are a multitude of reasons why he’s been a punching bag this year. Yes, he’s had moments where he has really played well, but more was expected from him this year based on last season and the fact that he’s entering the prime of his career. We haven’t really seen that improvement. He’ll have a game or 2 where he looks really good followed by 5 or 6 where he is either mediocre or ineffective. He’s been wildly inconsistent and early in the season when the Red Bulls were suffering a ton of tie games it was easy to point to him as a guy who either didn’t make an impact on offense or had a bad game defensively that lead to dropped points. I think those were valid criticisms.
Lets be clear: The fans are happy to have him on the team as an excellent depth option. He’s the type of guy every MLS team needs to be successful, but the fans were not happy seeing an inconsistent player start so many games. He has been inconsistent as a wide midfielder this year. Ditto as a CM in a 2 man central midfield.
HOWEVER, since being paired with Dax in the dual CDM role he’s had a much better impact and the fanbase is very happy that Petke has found a starting role that suits him perfectly.
I agree that it was a ugly representation of fans as well… I definitely admire all of Eric Alexanders hard work and even sent him a Tweet right after I read this article just to thank him and let him know he has supporters.
He’s not flashy by any means, and yea sometimes he just isn’t 100% accurate but this is the MLS and it’s rare to find ANYONE who is even close to 80% accurate.
This is right on.
*Future SKC player
nope. skc gets people who have guts and heart, not soulless schulbs like Alexander.