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In praise of Lloyd Sam: New York Red Bulls' record holder for competitive starts in a single season

Tell me you knew Lloyd Sam would set a club record this season, and I'll call you ambitious. Tell me you knew it would be the all-time record for games started, and I'll call you a liar.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Red Bulls' deflating 2-1 home loss to the New England Revolution in the first leg of the 2014 MLS Eastern Conference final is a game the team would like to swiftly move past.

But one player may find it a little harder to forget than most: Lloyd Sam set a new single-season club record for games started in all competitions in RBNY's last home match of 2014. It was his 39th start for the Red Bulls this year, nudging Sam ahead of the previous record - 38 starts - set by his coach, Mike Petke, in 2000.

Sam's record breaks down to 32 league starts, four in the playoffs (so far), two in CONCACAF Champions League, and one in US Open Cup. Fittingly, he has appeared in every competition the Red Bulls have played in this season. And he has never once come off the bench: this year, if Sam plays, he plays from the start.

This ever-present role in Mike Petke's starting tactics is unexpected.

Sam has looked like a top tier player in MLS almost from the day he arrived. He created a goal in his first start for RBNY: nothing flashy, just a smart, quick through-ball that cut out the entire defense and left Thierry Henry to do what he does.

And that was about it. Sam's impact was limited in 2012, since he joined the team late (mid-August) and was a little hampered by injury.

It was a similar story in 2013. Sam's form and fitness weren't to Mike Petke's satisfaction until quite late in the season. He made only eight starts in the regular season that year, but five of those were in RBNY's unbeaten final stretch-run to the Supporters' Shield - and Sam scored three goals in those five starts.

All told, he tallied five goals and one assist in 22 regular season appearances in 2013. But those appearances only amounted to 814 minutes. Throw in the paltry 164 minutes he logged for RBNY in 2012, and Sam had managed to play the equivalent of 16.3 league games in his first 15 months with the club.

He was an impact player, no question: he had five goals and two assists in those scant appearances. And he clearly had the talent to be a starter on almost any team in MLS. But to predict he'd be a record-breaking starter in 2014 with his injury record and a hot-and-cold relationship with his coach? Improbable.

Fortunately, Lloyd Sam is quite good at improbable things.

His first goal of this season was a header - the winner in RBNY's first win of the season - and he doesn't get many of those.

He was also the guy who proved to this year's Red Bulls that it was possible to score against Bill Hamid, when he struck in the 90th minute to provide another match-winner, this time against an opponent that was threatening to hold RBNY scoreless for the second consecutive meeting.

He isn't a prolific scorer, but five in all competitions is good for fourth best on the team this year. And he's contributed 10 assists so far: second only to Thierry Henry on his season's squad.

Statistical productivity isn't the whole story with Sam. He's got highlight-reel tricks for days, to the point one might suggest he relies to heavily on them. The "Lloyd Sam chop" is a move that gets an airing at least once a game. But it works, and as long it's working, he's right to keep doing it.

But Sam is that rare flair player who offers consistency. He has the pace to be the outlet pass and drive the counter attack. He has sufficient creativity and passing range to be a threat with his distribution. And he has the technique and skill on the ball to be trouble for defenses up close.

If all of those things fired every time, he wouldn't be playing in MLS. But they come together often enough to make him one of the better players on this team. And he only needs one of them to be working for him on any given day for him to be effective in this league.

It's the highlights one tends to remember, but it is his consistency that has kept him in Mike Petke's heart this season. As well as his work ethic.

The manager wants us all to work hard and pitch in as a team and all know our role -Lloyd Sam(empireofsoccer.com)

The knock on Sam in 2013 was that he wasn't working hard enough in training to show Petke he had the willingness and ability to play both sides of the ball. He won his coach round, presumably with improved effort in training.

Better players than Lloyd Sam have lost patience with trying to persuade Petke of their merit - looking at you, Juninho - but Sam proved his professionalism and determination by sticking to the task of fitting into a team that hadn't really embraced him for most of his first 12 months.

A lesser man would have moved on. Sam didn't.

I want players to prove me wrong...he proved me wrong...and I'm glad he did -Mike Petke (nypost.com)

Yes, right now he's probably still trying to shake the memory of missing an open goal against New England in RBNY's last game. But it is the determination to prove and improve himself that got him off the bench, into the starting lineup, and now into the Red Bulls' record books.

That same quality will doubtless see him attacking the goal with renewed vigor in RBNY's next match, and hopefully next season.

His record of 39 starts in 2014 should become 40 against New England on November 29. It is too much to expect he'll extend the mark to 41, but his presence in this year's lineup is why it is possible to at least hope Sam's record-breaking run of starts won't end in Foxborough.

The pattern of his career with RBNY echoes the pattern of his play on the field: he may take a while to get going, but once he's up and running, he is the Unstoppa-Bull.