HARRISON, N.J. – Unsung hero. The team's 2013 MVP. Intelligent. Brilliant.
Those were just some of the words the New York Red Bulls used as they showered praise on Eric Alexander for his stellar showing in the club’s victory over the Philadelphia Union on Wednesday night. Alexander was a key component as the Red Bulls ended their winless start to the season in their seventh match of the year, recording assists on both New York goals in a 2-1 triumph at Red Bull Arena.
More than just the assists, the veteran contributed from a largely unfamiliar left-midfield spot. His performance as a whole demonstrated his versatility and value to the club and might lead to his long-overlooked contributions receiving more recognition and praise from both fans and media, who have made him the piñata for a lot of their critiques.
“What I don’t understand was: Last year, Eric was one of the most valuable players and, for me, he was my player of the season,” said Red Bulls midfielder Tim Cahill. “He’s a player that gets on with it and stays under the radar and just does his job. He never asks for plaudits, and there’s a reason why he went away with the American national team and he got on the pitch [vs. South Korea in January], because [US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann] senses quality."
Cahill showed an awareness of fan and media criticism of Alexander, responding that Alexander's team-first mentality is part of the club's makeover.
“I always told everyone to watch out for Eric, and everyone still wants Eric to be the first sub or it’s an easy option for Eric to come off [in a game], but if you know football, then you know he’s a class player and he’s a team player," Cahill said. "At this club, there is no more individuals. Last year, that went out the door. Eric’s someone that I feel has a massive impact on this team, and you can see with the manager that he believes in him. You can see the way Thierry [Henry] talks about him as well. He’s a footballer, he’s a proper footballer, so I’m a massive fan.”
Alexander spent most of 2013 starting on the right side of midfield and was the only New York field player to appear in every game. Head coach Mike Petke – who has said that Alexander returned from US national team camp with more confidence – said he deployed the hardworking midfielder on the left on Wednesday because he can cut onto his preferred right foot and would help negate the Union’s talented midfield.
His stint there vs. the Union was just the latest positional move for Alexander during his time as a member of the Red Bulls. He has played on the right and in multiple central roles already this year, but the Indiana University product – who celebrated his 26th birthday on Monday – said the challenge is par for the course.
“Yeah, it’s a little weird bouncing around, because your role changes from game to game,” said Alexander, who saw some time on the left with the Portland Timbers in 2011-12. “[But] that’s just something that I’m going to have to get used to if I want to contribute to the team this year.”
While It is normal for players to give rave reviews of teammates who show well in victories, Wednesday's praise for the unassuming and oft-criticized Alexander was on a different level entirely.
“The best part about having fans and media cover us is the fact that everyone’s got their opinion, and everyone can say whatever they want to say,” said midfielder Dax McCarty. “To me, what matters is what your teammates and what your coaches think about you. Everything in here – we’re like a family – stays internal, and Eric knows he has the utmost confidence from our coaching staff and the players."
Alexander was confident from the first minute of the game against Philadelphia, constantly attacking Union right back Raymon Gaddis. Alexander did not win every battle in the opening stages, but he looked more comfortable as the match progressed.
In the 57th minute, he fed a great ball to a streaking Roy Miller that the Costa Rican laid off to Henry for the opening goal. Alexander was at it again 10 minutes later, getting on the end of a sublime pass from Henry before executing a simple but deft cut inside of Amobi Okugo that allowed Alexander enough space to cross to Lloyd Sam for what proved to be the decisive goal.
“Eric’s been playing well,” said Henry. “No wonder why he came on when he went to the national team. I’ve been saying for a very long time that he’s kind of the unsung hero. People don’t talk too much about him, but today he was brilliant for us. Mike asked him to play on the left, [and] he did it. Sometimes he plays in front of the defense, sometimes he plays on the right, sometimes he doesn’t play, [and] he doesn’t moan. He’s trying to do the best for the team, and I guess he got his reward tonight.”
McCarty, a long-time teammate of Alexander's, reinforced the notion that Alexander's play on the season more than merited the two assists he earned on the night.
"I’ve been with Eric since his rookie year in Dallas, where, I guess you could say he was my backup, and I always saw great things in Eric," McCarty said. "He’s a tremendous player. He can play any position in the midfield, and he’s a guy that he never gets too high or too low, and he stays confident. That’s what I think we’ve been projecting to him, is to stay confident, because he knows he’s a good player, and we have faith in him. To me, it’s a just reward for him: getting two assists tonight.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by email at Franco8813@gmail.com.