Sports can be so cold.
The New York Red Bulls have traded Lloyd Sam to DC United (of all places!) for an undisclosed amount of allocation money. Looking back to just March of this year— only four short months ago— Sam would be pointed to as one of the most important players for the Red Bulls this season, just as he was last year.
A few suboptimal months later and he’s gone. The worst part about it all is that it makes sense.
Before delving into the rationale behind the trade, let’s take a moment lament the cutthroat nature of sports, especially the volatile tradition of player movement in the MLS. Have you ever experienced a poor run of form just in everyday life? I sure have. When it comes to attempting to make salubrious decisions in the kitchen but ending up having pizza three times a week or not being the greatest friend or family member to those who deserve it? It happens. If I was dumped every time I had a less-than-desirable period of time, I’d be family-less, friendless, jobless and homeless.
Last season was Sam’s best in his five (only three of them full) seasons at RBNY, he was tremendous. It was the team’s transition year from the Thierry Henry era and Sam was able to step up his production to cover the loss of the legend. He scored 10 goals in MLS and was able to impact the game whenever he wasn’t scoring. Sam endeared himself to the supporters, was a brilliant servant to the club and is honestly unlucky to be on the way out.
But as Kurt Vonnegut would say: So it goes.
Unfortunately for Sam, it makes sense through the lens of the Red Bulls’ front office to move on. The winger is 31 years old and will turn 32 before playoffs start. That’s not a kind number to wingers, especially ones that rely on guile, pace and agility more often than vision, finishing and passing ability.
The Red Bulls needed allocation money, we assume to sign another player. Jesse Marsch has already confirmed that the club is in the market for attacking help, and it sounds like the team wants someone to contribute now - which means a starting position is potentially under threat. Sam is a starter, makes a starter's salary, deserves the respect due a player who has helped the club win two Supporters' Shields. If his place in the lineup is under threat, and his market value is such it can help RBNY get the guy they think they need: in a weird way, it's almost respectful of his work and his seniority to cut ties now.
As previously mentioned, Sam is on the wrong side of 30, and he's a winger - a position that tends not to be kind to older players. It’s much more typical to find central strikers, midfielders and defenders stretch out a career as it draws closer to 35 or even 40. We’re not much accustomed to seeing wingers progress to that age.
Sam’s 2016 never really got started. Even when the Red Bulls begun to play better after their slump to open the season, it didn’t seem quite like Sam ever got off the bus. In recent times, Alex Muyl has usurped the former Leeds player in the starting XI for three successive matches. That’s not rotation, that's replacement.
That’s his biggest problem. New York had youth behind him. Muyl, a rookie, has proved to Marsch that he’s can be trusted and that he’s MLS-ready. He’s taken his chance, grabbed it with two hands and refused to let go. Unfortunately for Sam, that meant the club could let go of him.
Gonzalo Veron is still a player that the Red Bulls hope to unlock more from and he’s younger, too. He’s 26 and there’s a reason New York were inclined to import him from Argentina and slap a DP tag on him for his transfer fee. They’re not in the business of giving up on him just yet: he is a big investment, and he has only been with the team for about a year. Sam himself didn't really settle into a starting role until 2014, after a season-and-a-half of struggling - first with injury, then with Mike Petke's preference for Eric Alexander on the right wing. If anyone in the squad understands what Veron is going through as he struggles to convince his body and his coach that he can the job he was hired to do, it is Lloyd Sam.
One possible application of the allocation money from the Sam trade could be to buy down Veron's cap hit and remove the Designated Player tag that currently burdens him. He could just be a player again, where there’ll be less pressure on him, presumably.
Sam's absence doesn't open a hole in the roster at the right wing position. He was, until recently, the best option - but some distance from the only one. Muyl is the new favorite; Veron might find a role there one day; one of the Red Bulls’ brightest talents, Derrick Etienne, is providing the pyrotechnics for NYRB II and might just be ready for a role in the first team, even at just 19. He plays on the wing as well.
Without Sam, the Red Bulls still have any two of Mike Grella, Muyl, Veron, Shaun Wright-Phillips or Etienne to choose from to populate the attack on both flanks.
Sam became expendable and hardly had a chance to reverse his form this season. It’s a cold business but it’s one that he isn’t unaccustomed to, he’s been around long enough. It’s painful seeing him going to DC because he’s a player you want to root for.
If nothing else, Sam is the likeliest of DC players to get a warm reception on September 11 when DC come to Red Bull Arena. Unless he performs well against New York when they travel to DC on August 21, then he’ll just be another player on United.