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In praise of Eric Alexander: New York Red Bulls' record holder for competitive appearances in a single season

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After 41 competitive appearances for RBNY in 2014 - the club's single season record - it is time to give Eric Alexander his due: respect.

Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

When he took the field in DC on Saturday, November 8, 2014, for the second leg of the Eastern Conference semifinal, Eric Alexander did something no other player in the history of the New York Red Bulls (or MetroStars) had done before: he officially participated in his 41st competitive game for the club in a single season.

The team's all-competitions, single-season appearances record had stood since 2000, when Adolfo Valencia played in 40 matches  and scored 21 goals - also a single-season record for this club. Bradley Wright-Phillips has obliterated Valencia's scoring record: 30 goals in 36 appearances (so far) seems a solid bet to remain unchallenged for a while.

Alexander won't put quite so much distance between himself and Valencia's old appearance record, but there are a minimum of two games left in this season and he is likely to start them both. Even if he doesn't, playing in 41 matches in one campaign is testament to Alexander's primary virtues as a Red Bull: versatility and durability. He is the Relia-Bull.

He's a proper footballer, so I'm a massive fan -Tim Cahill (mlssoccer.com)

This season's 41 games were preceded by 38 in 2013: 2014 is the second consecutive year Alexander has led the team in appearances. It is an impressive achievement when one considers his presumed position on the depth chart when he arrived at the club.

At the start of 2013, the Red Bulls' primary central midfield options were Dax McCarty, Juninho Pernambucano, and Tim Cahill. Alexander looked set to spend the year battling with Jonny Steele and Connor Lade for the right to be first off the bench when one of the starting trio tired.

He can play a number of roles for us and we are pleased that he has joined the Red Bulls -Andy Roxburgh(newyorkredbulls.com)

Andy Roxburgh purred about Alexander's versatility when the new signing was announced, but The Oregonian's comments on the trade (Alexander arrived from Portland) seemed to sum up the consensus take on his role: the Timbers had picked up Will Johnson and Diego Valeri, and were looking to play Diego Chara in a more central position. Alexander had led the 2012 Portland Timbers in assists, but that was in the context of a team that had consciously given up on its season and started rebuilding before the year was over.

Three seasons in to his MLS career, Alexander was pretty much what one might expect of a third-round draft pick: a solid but expendable depth option. Portland stacked their midfield with stars, and pitched him over to RBNY, where he was expected to follow the same worthy but unspectacular trajectory.

Such preconceptions were validated by Mike Petke's first line-up of 2013 - coincidentally, for a match in Portland. Juninho, Cahill and McCarty all started, as the midfield core of a 4-3-3. The team was 3-1 up inside 30 minutes, and the course of the season was clear. Alexander watched from the bench, presumably studying how he might contribute to the system when called upon.

Then the tide turned. RBNY was overwhelmed in the second half. The 4-3-3 couldn't defend a lead, Petke tried to shore things up with Steele and Brandon Barklage - but the Timbers were rampant. Alexander's first appearance for the Red Bulls was as time-killing substitute in the last minute of that match, as his team desperately clung to a 3-3 draw.

But he was a starter by the very next game.

This was a surprise, partly necessitated by circumstance: Juninho was injured, Lloyd Sam was struggling for fitness and form, and Petke was clearly shaken by the trauma of watching Portland shred his 4-3-3.

A 4-4-2 was sent out to play in San Jose, with Alexander and Steele bracketing a Cahill-McCarty central midfield pairing. The formation was no better at defending a lead than its predecessor, but Alexander scored in his first start as a Red Bull.

He never looked back. Alexander was in the lineup at kick-off for every league game after San Jose until September 29, when he was the first sub called on in RBNY's 1-1 draw in Seattle.

He capped his first season as a Red Bull with a goal in the 5-2 win that secured the club's first-ever major trophy.

He was a sub in that last game too, however, as Petke increasingly warmed up to the talents of Lloyd Sam on the right wing.

Alexander was still a core part of the squad, and his contribution to winning the Supporters' Shield could not be denied. But he finished 2013 as he had started it: a depth option, coming off the bench in RBNY's disappointing capitulation to Houston Dynamo in the second leg of their Eastern Conference semi-final.

I never understood the stick he got from some people -Mike Petke (nytimes.com)

Despite his ever-present role in the Shield-winning campaign (Alexander appeared in every regular season game, starting 30 out of 34 matches), it was hard to see where Alexander would fit into the starting lineup in 2014.

Sam seemed to have convinced Petke of his merits as the starting right winger; Juninho had left the club part-way through 2013, but Peguy Luyindula had emerged as a creative force in central midfield, apparently relegating Alexander to fourth on the depth chart (behind Cahill, McCarty and Luyindula) in the contest for the two starting spots in the middle of the pitch.

The early games of the season brought confirmation of this analysis: RBNY started 2014 with four of its first six matches on the road, and Alexander started all the away games in central midfield for reasons ranging from necessity (turf fields in Vancouver and Montreal ruled out Thierry Henry's participation) to tactical (Petke seemed to prefer Alexander as a midfield starter when he felt the need for a more defensive shape to the lineup); he was a sub in both the home games, spelling first Sam (against Colorado) and then McCarty (against Chivas USA).

It was a frustrating run of games for anyone with a care for RBNY: none were won, the lineups changed incessantly as Petke juggled myriad personnel issues, and Alexander floated around as a sort of placeholder - a reminder of the team's deficiencies more than its strength.

Whenever he started, it could be explained by the absence of another player (Henry, Cahill, Luyindula and even McCarty all missed games for one reason or another in the opening weeks of the season); whenever he came in as a substitute, it reinforced the notion his best role was back-up.

I've been saying for a very long time he has been the unsung hero -Thierry Henry (bigapplesoccer.com)

Alexander seemed to find his place in the 2014 lineup on April 16, when he was a surprise starter at left wing for a home game against Philly. Left midfield was the spot Jonny Steele had made his own in 2013, and was battling Bobby Convey for in the new season.

Alexander didn't merely play well against the Union, he contributed directly to both the goals RBNY needed to record its first win of the 2014 regular season. His part in the second goal foreshadowed the sort of assists Thierry Henry has been creating since he moved over to the left wing:

No surprise when Alexander lined up on the left for the next game - against Houston. RBNY won again. A draw and another win followed, before the Red Bulls lost their minds in Harrison and got bludgeoned by Chicago Fire, losing 5-4.

Nonetheless, Alexander had done a decent job of helping RBNY recover from a poor start by registering its first wins of the year. Then Tim Cahill was called up to serve his country's World Cup effort, and Alexander was back in central midfield for four games (two losses, a draw and a win) while Petke played around with Steele, Convey and Ruben Bover on the left.

It's a little weird bouncing around...that's just something that I'm going to have to get used to if I want to contribute to the team this year -Eric Alexander (mlssoccer.com)

When Cahill returned, Alexander was back out left for a couple of matches, switched into the middle for a 4-1 thumping of Columbus because McCarty needed a rest, and was on the left again for a road loss to Philly and a home draw with San Jose.

The 1-1 tie with the Quakes was the 20th game of RBNY's 2014 regular season. Alexander had appeared in every one - but not once had he started in his 2013 role on the right of midfield. He was the Red Bulls' band-aid, providing temporary cover to whatever part of the lineup needed to be patched.

On July 30, against Real Salt Lake, he started in right midfield for the first time in the season - because Lloyd Sam was out. Ironically, it also appeared to be the moment Petke realized he genuinely didn't have a place on the field for his ever-present stand-in if the squad was at full strength.

Although Jonny Steele had left the club in mid-July and Convey did not seem to be the answer to RBNY's left-midfield question, Alexander found himself once again standing in the way of an ostensibly more exciting option on the flank.

In 2013, he had been blocking the path of Sam, who duly took over the right wing the following season. By the end of July 2014, Ambroise Oyongo had emerged as the sort of player fans want to watch: young, inventive, almost visibly improving from game to game, and capable of internet-ready highlights.

Alexander doesn't do that sort of thing very often.

His first start in right midfield this season - against Real Salt Lake - made room for Oyongo to start on the left flank, and the Cameroonian kept his place for the next game, against New England. Sam was back in the lineup; Alexander was once again on the bench without a strong claim to be first choice for any position.

Matt Miazga is arguably the reason Eric Alexander is now RBNY's all-competitions, single-season appearances record holder.

The young center back was sent off just before half-time with the Revs leading 1-0 against a Red Bulls team that had won just five of 21 regular season games played. Required to strike a balance between all-out attack and shielding what would effectively be a three-man defense with the full backs taking turns to push forward, Petke reached for the guy who had been covering the team's blemishes all season: Eric Alexander.

What followed was a thrilling turn-around (if you're a RBNY fan), and Alexander took over from Tim Cahill at half-time, forming a double-pivot with McCarty in midfield. The two combined for the equalizer within two minutes of the restart (Alexander's part being much less significant than McCarty's - but even a small part is a part).

The game was pivotal for two reasons: first, it would appear to be the match that opened Mike Petke's eyes to the possibility of a 4-2-3-1. The Alexander-McCarty defensive midfield fulcrum that has become so important to the team's current form and identity had its genesis in that game against the Revs.

Secondly, Miazga's red card created selection headaches for Petke that forced Alexander back into the starting lineup in the short-term. The coach didn't change his preferred formation immediately after the New England game.

For the next fixture, against Chicago, it was back to the 4-4-2; but with Jamison Olave and Miazga unavailable, the back line was remodeled, Oyongo had to step in at left back while Roy Miller played center back, and Alexander was restored to left midfield.

Chicago won, 1-0, and Petke had Oyongo back on the bench for RBNY's subsequent home game against Montreal.

The coach was playing around with tactics again. Alexander was nominally on the left, but clearly instructed to pinch in, making the formation more of a diamond than the traditional 4-4-2 the team had been playing for most of the past two seasons.

This echoed the all-hands-on-deck formation deployed for the second half of the Revs game. But it didn't quite work out. Montreal scored first, RBNY found an equalizer in the 53rd minute, but Petke took Alexander out for Oyongo and a reversion to the 4-4-2. The defense still wasn't great, but the Red Bulls won 4-2.

Having seen the 4-4-2 - and true wide players  on both flanks - pay off, Petke stuck with it for the road trip to DC. Once again, it didn't work: 2-0 loss; Alexander subbed on for an injured Chris Duvall in the 63rd minute.

To recap, in five games, Alexander started in three different tactical roles and was twice subbed into games due to injury or ejection. He was still the band-aid, but Petke was no longer trying to find the best lineup for his 4-4-2, he was reassessing the strengths of the squad and shopping for a new tactic.

The new tactic arrived on September 6, when Sporting Kansas City came to visit Red Bull Arena. Petke unveiled a 4-2-3-1: best back four available, McCarty and Alexander shielding the defense, an attacking trio providing width and support for Bradley Wright-Phillips up front.

It was yet another formation change forced by circumstance: Cahill and Oyongo were on international duty. But it worked. RBNY won 2-1, and Petke hasn't deviated from the 4-2-3-1 since.

The tactic isn't perfect: the Red Bulls still aren't great on the road, having won just one of four road games played in the new formation; Columbus trampled RBNY in Harrison, just as it seemed the new lineup had made the Arena a fortress again.

But it has given Alexander the one thing his time at RBNY has been missing: a position in the starting lineup for which he is clearly the best available.

I know how he plays and we have good communication together. We read off each other pretty well -Eric Alexander on his partnership with Dax McCarty (goal.com)

Since the 4-2-3-1 was adopted, there has only been one occasion on which Alexander has not started alongside McCarty in midfield. The trip to LA on September 28 was a game Lloyd Sam missed through injury, and force of habit saw Petke stick the band-aid on the right side of the attacking three; Cahill slotted in beside MCarty: RBNY lost 4-0.

The loss probably had as much to do with LA being very good at home and the Red Bulls being pretty poor on the road as it did with breaking up the Alexander-McCarty partnership. But it was enough to prevent Petke from shuttling Alexander around the lineup again.

For perhaps the first time in his career as a Red Bull, the big question after a disappointing result was not whether Alexander was keeping a better option out of the team, but whether Cahill was an ineffective substitute for the Relia-Bull.

The LA game was RBNY's 30th regular season game of 2014, so it only took Eric Alexander 64 consecutive league appearances to find a position to call his own, safe from second-guessing what might have been if only someone else were available or in form to take his place.

I would rather just play; it doesn't matter to me -Eric Alexander on his role for RBNY (bigapplesoccer.com)

The irony of his hard-won reward for two seasons of unyielding service to this club is that it probably won't last. The off-season will likely bring an almighty shake-up to the squad: the Expansion Draft, the unpredictable consequences of the pending Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations, question marks hanging over the future of both Designated Players - all multiply the usual difficulties MLS teams face when trying to hold a team together in the off-season.

And since the point of all Mike Petke's tactical machinations over the past two seasons is the not-as-easy-as-it-might-seem requirement to make the best of Thierry Henry, the loss of just one player at the end of this season could be sufficient to throw the club into rebuilding mode.

With last season's Supporters' Shield and this season's record-breaking run of appearances, no one is better qualified to help RBNY rebuild than Eric Alexander.

As fans, we can hope the Red Bulls have a plan that actually works from the start in 2015, thereby sparing us the anxiety of watching yet another on-the-fly scramble for an on-field identity. But history suggests they probably won't, and Alexander (assuming RBNY isn't careless enough to let him slip away in the off-season) will likely be called on to do his best work: playing somewhere that isn't his best position in the service of his team.

Sometimes he doesn't play. He doesn't moan. He's trying to do the best for the team -Thierry Henry(bigapplesoccer.com)

It is a thankless job. Those unfortunate enough to have sat close to this writer at RBA will have heard me suggest Alexander be benched for...well, just about every player on the roster at one point or another. That is why fans - or at least this fan - shouldn't be responsible for team decisions.

He may not be the most exciting player to watch, his brain occasionally seems to reach a decision a second or two after his body has already committed to an action, and he has only recently been granted the courtesy of playing a position best suited to his talents.

But he has been the most reliable RBNY player of the past two years, and has the all-time, single-season appearances record to prove it.

Thank you, Eric. For ignoring the critics and doing your job - even when no one seemed entirely clear on what your job was or how you should do it.

Now tack a few more games onto that record before you go on vacation, please.