Alex Muyl had a successful rookie year for the New York Red Bulls. He broke into the first team at the first attempt, finishing 2016 with 2008 minutes, 33 appearances, 22 starts, six assists and three goals in all competitions. His second year as a pro has got off to a more challenging start. He was injured in preseason, taking a knock against New England Revolution that was only known as "the Alex situation" until RBNY revealed Muyl had suffered "facial fractures" and would start the year playing in a mask.
At RBNY's 2017 Media Day, Muyl described what happened to him:
The ball was coming...I went to flick it on and I guess the guy came through a little bit late...pretty late....I never saw him coming and he just got me on the side of my head. As soon as I went down I knew something was wrong - my face was...not in a normal place.
It was very scary for a little while, but luckily I didn't need surgery. I've still got to get my jaw kinda put back in place but besides that - yeah, it's been amazing. I've been able to train the last few days; so all in all, it's been something I thought was going to be much worse but I've been able to recover very quick.
"Yeah, it's been amazing" was not the expected response to a question about an injury displaced his face, but the 21-year-old is resilient. At Media Day, despite obvious recent adversity, he showed little but a sincere enthusiasm for the season ahead. RBNY has been working on a new formation for 2017: the 4-2-2-2 is getting another shot at becoming the Red Bulls' preferred lineup. Muyl is looking forward to it:
It's a new system: it's very exciting, because I think teams have been starting to learn the way we play and places that we become a little bit more susceptible. I think it's a really exciting look for our team. We can always go back to the other thing but it's good to have - I'm excited about it.
He hasn't featured much in preseason recently for understandable reasons, but even if he hadn't been injured it seems that Jesse Marsch's lineup might not have room for the right winger who commanded a starting position in his rookie year. Muyl has a clear sense of his place on the team and what the new system likely means for him this season:
I think it's a system where I might have more trouble getting on the field - which is normal because we have a lot of quality players. For me, this year is just about - if I do get on the field - I want to make sure that I can try and help the team as much as possible; you know, try and maximize those minutes.
At least to start 2017, Muyl will once again be part of RBNY's talented Homegrown cohort, pressing for a chance to contribute to the first team. He holds his fellow younger players in high regard, every bit as confident in their ability as his own:
These guys are really good players, they're very confident. They're guys that have been around the team obviously a long time - Ryan's [Meara] proved himself in the league already. The chances they do get, I think they're going to really do well with them.
Obviously as a young player, there's a lot of things you have to think about. As long as they try to minimize those doubts or those questions, they're going to be fine.
That's the advice Muyl is giving himself anyway. His ambition for the season is to play without fear:
I think playing in a more free manner - not really worrying about making mistakes, not really worrying about letting my teammates down - trying to express myself, take risks. I think it's going to help me a lot.
His progress as a player will have a few more eyes on it this season than last thanks to the attention generated by Adidas' Backed By Messi campaign. Muyl is one of 10 young players selected for this year's campaign, which promises to introduce them to a global soccer-watching (and cleats-buying) public. The Homegrown RBNY man is featured regularly in a series of YouTube videos that has just reached its fourth episode.
Leo Messi hasn't been in touch yet, but he and Muyl have already met, as it happens.
I haven't spoken to Messi personally. We met in college though, because he trained - the whole Argentinian national team trained - in Georgetown. So we played with them for like a week or so. I have a nice picture of me, still in college, with him.
Being Backed By Messi isn't going to make or break Muyl's career, but it's an early accolade, and he gets some nice shoes out of it.
It's going to continue to move along. It's been a really big honor for me; it's really cool. The cleats are really comfortable too - I'm not just saying that.