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Alex Muyl: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Against Columbus Crew SC, we saw exactly why the rookie from Georgetown is a starting XI fixture and why some wonder why that is the case.

MLS: Columbus Crew SC at New York Red Bulls Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

It all began with the surprise departure.

On July 7, after four full and very productive seasons for the New York Red Bulls, popular winger Lloyd Sam was traded to rival D.C. United. With no more than a single day to process that RBNY were shopping the Leeds, England-native, Red Bulls observers were trying to make sense of the move.

While New York brass gave vague reasons for the move, it has become clear that it was orchestrated to create salary cap flexibility and to insert rookie Alex Muyl into the starting lineup. Since the trade Muyl has made 13 of his 17 starts in 2016.

Unlike Sam, who often channeled the RBNY offense through his runs down the right side, Muyl’s role has been completely different. The Red Bull Academy Homegrown from the Lower East Side of Manhattan has been tasked with being a defensive winger and a main cog in New York’s high press.

In Sunday’s win over Columbus Crew SC, Muyl displayed the attributes that have made the former Georgetown Hoya a fixture in Jesse Marsch’s starting XI since the departure of Sam. And he has showed why some question his continued place in the starting lineup.

Muyl made his first major impact of the afternoon in the sixth minute as he used his hustle and defensive tenacity to turn a wayward pass form Sacha Kljestan into a penalty opportunity for RBNY.

Attempting to spring Muyl down the right sideline, Kljestan overhit his pass and Crew center back Michael Parkhurst ushered the ball towards goalkeeper Brad Stuver for the seemingly easy clearance. Muyl quickly closed down the unsure Stuver, who was making his MLS debut, causing the Columbus keeper to make a mess of situation. Stuver panicked and a routine clearance turned into an awkward and desperate foul inside the penalty area.

Even though, Kljestan would squander the penalty opportunity, Muyl would again display his pressing prowess during the sequence that resulted in RBNY’s first goal of the game. After Chris Duvall picked Corey Ashe’s pocket along the sideline, Muyl quickly closed down Nicolai Naess to keep the play alive as Duvall would find Kljestan, leading to Mike Grella expertly finishing his seventh goal of the season.

Muyl’s excellence in disrupting Columbus’ attack was evident in his team-leading five tackles on the day; three of which came in Columbus’ end of the field. No other other Red Bull would have more than three on the day.

Muyl even got into the act as a distributor, notching his sixth assist of the season in the 58th minute after finding Bradley Wright-Phillips open down the left channel. The Englishman did his best Thierry Henry impression to double the Red Bulls’ lead.

While there was plenty of good from Muyl, we also saw some of the inconsistencies that still exist in his game.

The biggest gripe many have made about Muyl, myself included, has been about his current ability with the ball at his feet and in attacking areas. Despite his assist earlier in the game, his most glaring moment of failure came late in the match as RBNY were holding on to a 3-2 lead. With a chance to ice the game in the 91st minute, a wide open Muyl took a feed inside the box from Gonzalo Veron and had nothing but green grass between him and the Crew SC goalkeeper. Unfortunately, Muyl shot straight at Stuver for the easy save.

That miss may have been Muyl’s most obvious gaffe, but his poorest moment of the game occurred nine minutes earlier when he completely lost track of Harrison Afful on a second ball following a corner kick leading to a Columbus goal.

RBNY were scrambling to reset their lines after Veron headed away Justin Meram’s corner. Muyl gets caught ball-watching as Afful sneaks behind him to collect Parkhurst’s lob to easily chip Luis Robles to cut New York’s lead to one.

Muyl’s mostly positive, and at times downright excellent, performance showed both why he is an automatic starter for Marsch and why some observers would like to see him start games on the bench in favor of other options. His troubles in making the critical play with the ball at his feet may be glaring, but his defensive attributes showed brightly on Sunday, as they have throughout the season (lapse in judgement on Afful’s goal notwithstanding).

It is those attributes that have been incredibly important to the New York Red Bulls’ success in 2016 and explain why head coach Jesse Marsch continues to keep Muyl in the starting lineup.