Lloyd Sam made his 100th appearance in all competitions for the New York Red Bulls on September 25. Unfortunately, he didn't have much opportunity to celebrate (though he did score a goal): RBNY lost, 5-2.
Nonetheless, 100 appearances for this club is worth celebrating. Sam is just the 23rd player to play in 100 games for RBNY. After scoring against Orlando, he has 21 goals in all competitions for the Red Bulls: 12th on the club's all-time scoring chart. He also has 20 assists in all competitions: 12th on the RBNY all-time assists list. And that 20/20 combination is special - only four other players in the history of the club have reached the same mark.
Not bad at all for a man who wasn't a regular, season-long starter for RBNY until 2014, despite joining the team in 2012. Sam has played a total of 6824 competitive minutes for the Red Bulls to date. Of those, 5625 have been played in 2014 and 2015. Injury and Mike Petke's suspicion that Sam wasn't his type of player cost the Leeds-born winger a lot of time. He's been making up for it over the past two seasons: he registered double-digit assists for RBNY in 2014, and he just hit double-digit goals for 2015 with his successful strike against Orlando.
It may have taken Sam a while to win and hold a regular starting spot in the lineup, but once he did, he hasn't really looked back. Last year, he set the club record for games started in a single season: 40. That is also good for the second-best on the single season games-played list. The 3462 minutes he played in all competitions in 2014 is the third-highest single season total in club history.
Sam is among RBNY's all-time great attacking players. He's provided a lot of happy memories for fans of this team since his debut in August 2012. Here are just five of them:
1. First Start: vs.Toronto FC; September 29, 2012; 4-1 WIN
Five games later, we saw Sam's (and Luis Robles') first start for RBNY - and a decisive contribution to the Red Bull's second goal (0:53 on the video above) of the game. It was Thierry Henry's night that September in 2012, but it was also the most substantive hint we'd seen of Sam's potential contribution to the team's future.
2. The goal that sparked the 2013 run to the Shield: vs. D.C. United; August 31, 2013; 2-1 WIN
Sebastian Giovinco will be the 2015 MLS MVP and this goal will be all over his highlight reel for this season:
Just remember Sam also has something very similar on his list of achievements in MLS. His goal against D.C. United on August 21, 2013, wasn't just pretty - it was the beginning of the end of a three-game winless streak for RBNY at that point in the regular season.
No one had the Red Bulls pegged as Supporters' Shield winners as they staggered back from California after a 3-2 loss to Chivas USA. The team was average - four wins, four losses, two draws from its last 10 games. And then Sam scored a magical goal at Red Bull Arena, and RBNY went on to win six of its last eight matches of 2013.
3. The goal that clinched the Shield: vs. Chicago Fire; October 27, 2013; 5-2 WIN
Orlando can beat RBNY 5-2 for the rest of time, but the most significant 5-2 result in Red Bulls' history will always be the win recorded against Chicago Fire on the last day of the 2013 regular season: the win that brought RBNY it's first-ever meaningful trophy.
Mike Magee opened the scoring for Chicago, threatening to consign the Red Bulls to yet another season without silverware. Then Henry settled the nerves and put RBNY on the board. Next, Ibrahim Sekagya scrambled a goal to put the home team ahead. The game was still tight. RBNY needed the win. A 2-1 lead allowed no one to breathe easy.
In the 56th minute (1:52 in the video above), Sam collected a pass from Peguy Luyindula on the edge of the area and went to work. Cutting the ball back from right foot to left, he shook off his marker and sailed a curling shot past Sean Johnson. 3-1: breathing room; Harrison exalted in the sound of 25,000 people exhaling.
Thanks to a late Quincy Amarikwa strike, Sam's goal is officially the match-winner in the game that clinched RBNY's first-ever trophy. Henry was the captain and lynchpin of the 2013 squad. Tim Cahill was the team's MVP of the season. Peguy Luyindula was the man of the match against Chicago. But Lloyd Sam scored the goal that brought a real trophy to this club for the first time.
It is appropriate to pause this parade of highlights to make note of Sam's extraordinary achievement in 2013: he scored five MLS regular-season goals off just seven shots. Total. Seven shots, five on target, five goals. It remains the MLS single-season scoring percentage record.
4. The assist that pointed RBNY past DC in the 2014 playoffs: vs. D.C. United; November 2, 2014; 2-0 WIN
An echo of the first highlight in this series: just a good, defense-splitting pass for Thierry Henry to get into position to wreak some havoc. The outcome, as with the first highlight, was a goal for RBNY's top scorer: Kenny Cooper back in 2012; Bradley Wright-Phillips in 2014.
This particular goal pointed the way to the Red Bulls' first ever playoff series win over DC. Sam played his part - and this assist is, for now, his only contribution to a RBNY post-season score sheet.
5. The first RalfBall goal: @ Sporting Kansas City; March 8, 2015; 1-1 DRAW
The 2015 season is not yet over, so it is hard to judge the context of Sam's performance this year. It has been good, no question. He has scored 10 goals in all competitions and produced seven assists. More importantly, he has been a key player in guiding the team toward its new playing identity: RalfBall.
He has thrived in the new system, cutting inside more often and becoming more of a scoring threat than he was in 2014. That shows versatility: the team needed a wide-man last season, and Sam was that man. It needed a different sort of winger in 2015, and he has become that narrower attacking option - often ending up as a sort of strike partner for BWP rather than a flank player.
Much of the success of the season to date for RBNY is owed to the ability of four senior players from the last couple of seasons to lead the transition to the new system. Without the relative comfort with which Luis Robles (who perhaps had the least adjustment to make), Dax McCarty, Bradley Wright-Phillips, and Sam have adapted to their new tactical roles, Jesse Marsch would have had a lot of holes to fill on the field.
Each of those players has been a leader on the pitch. Each has turned a game or two RBNY's way this season. What history may regard as their most important work in 2015 is hopefully still to come.
But this season can be called a success right now. The Red Bulls have navigated the transition to a new system, (for the most part) won over a justly skeptical fanbase, and arrived at the end of the season with a legitimate shot at winning a trophy. The new-look RBNY has done justice to the legacy established by Mike Petke. The momentum established in 2013 and 2014 has not been lost. The outlook for the club's future - regardless of what happens in the next few games - is encouraging.
It didn't have to be this way. Teams are judged by their results. This season has been a war of attrition across the league. The Red Bulls are top of the Eastern Conference with five games to play - but also just six points up on Montreal, the sixth-best team in the East at the moment. A couple of wins is the difference between what has been a generally good season and what might have been seen as a struggle to make the new system work.
And that struggle would have been hard to swallow for many fans. It also would have been unfairly harsh on Jesse Marsch and Ali Curtis, who have been presented as the architects of the new identity.
The US soccer media has been slow to notice or unwilling to acknowledge that RBNY is now part of a global Red Bull soccer system. As best we can tell, there is no Plan B. This season was about getting the new system going, whether it produced immediate results or not. Jesse and Ali were stuck with the task of making RalfBall work, and the perception of success provided by a winning record probably wasn't a luxury they would have been allowed to seek cover behind. If results weren't good, they would have had to stay the course regardless.
A year isn't much in the context of a long-term plan. But it is a long time for fans, players, coaching staff and everyone else associated with the club to watch a team struggle. That RBNY hasn't greatly struggled (yet - there is still time for a dip in form) is a blessing. And Sam played his part in that blessing from the start.
The Red Bulls opened the 2015 season in Kansas City. They were, as might be expected, not great. The team was disjointed: BWP looked lost, registering no shots on goal. After 50 minutes, RBNY was losing. Neutral observers would have forgiven the team for a loss on the road - it had become something of a tradition for this club to start a new season with an away loss. But many fans would have been less forgiving. The general mood of RBNY supporters at the start of the year was not one of patience.
So it was important, with hindsight, that the losing feeling in that first game lasted four minutes. Perhaps you can thank the new system for Sam's willingness to cut inside and go for goal rather than push wide and look for the cross. But only he can be thanked for the execution, beating a cluster of defenders and the 'keeper with his footwork and a shot from outside the area. It was an exceptional goal to start what has been a season of exceptional goals for RBNY. And it stood up as the equalizer: the RalfBall era would not begin with a loss.
Sam scored three goals in RBNY's first four games of this season. He was instrumental in the unbeaten start that helped the club to ease into its future. And that may prove to be his career's most important contribution to this team.
Thanks for the good times, Lloyd. Looking forward to many more with you in the team.