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.