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“I was never a blue-collar player”: A photo tribute to Alex Muyl’s first goal of 2017

RBNY’s Alex Muyl doesn’t think we’ve really seen the best of him yet, but he’s going to try to change that this season.

Alex Muyl and Sacha Kljestan celebrate New York Red Bulls’ opening goal against DC United on April 15, 2017.
Alex Muyl celebrates his first goal of 2017
Matthew Stith

Back in February, at New York Red Bulls Media Day, Alex Muyl was a man expecting to find his sophomore season a little more challenging than his first year as a pro. In 2016, Muyl broke into the RBNY starting lineup as the nominal right winger in a 4-2-3-1 formation. His principle virtues - those that got him on the field and kept him there for a total of 33 appearances and more than 2000 minutes in all competitions - were an unflagging work ethic and the ability to cover a lot of ground.

He was prose, not poetry, for RBNY in 2016. And as a regular part of the team’s attacking quartet, the knock on Muyl quickly became that his game had plenty of energy but lacked spark. He scored three goals and contributed six assists over the course of the season, but Dax McCarty provided similar (three goals and five assists in 2016) as a defensive midfielder.

At Media Day, Muyl told Once A Metro’s Jason Puckett that he expected the team’s new formation preference - the 4-2-2-2 - was “a system where I might have more trouble getting on the field”. At the same time, though prepared for a smaller role and fewer opportunities, he clearly had decided to make this the year to shake off the reputation he’d acquired in his rookie season as a willing, active, but limited attacking option:

I think playing in a more free manner - not really worrying about mistakes, not really worrying about letting my teammates down - trying to express myself, take risks. I think that’s going to help me a lot.

So we looked forward to a more aggressive, attack-minded Muyl in 2017, when he could get on the field.

As it has turned out, Muyl has remained a regular for RBNY so far this season. Not an everyday starter, but a regular. He’s failed to get on the field just once in the Red Bulls’ opening seven games, and started three of the six matches he has played in. But he wasn’t scoring, or assisting, or really looking like much of a threat to do either in his initial appearances.

That changed on April 15, when Muyl opened the scoring for RBNY against D.C. United. We don’t yet know whether his first goal of the season will unlock the player who was a heavy scorer for two national championship winning Academy teams, and a regular on the score sheet for his college team, Georgetown.

But in his post-match comments, Muyl made clear that his objective for this season is to return to the player he used to be:

I think it's just going back to who I am. I've never been the kind of guy that was going to do the dirty work, I was never a blue-collar player. I came here and I think that's something I was able to do. I think it got me on the field maybe before I was even ready sometimes. I think with me it's just becoming who I am and I can do that part, and I love doing that part, and I love helping the team win. But, I also want to show that I can score goals, help set up goals, and hopefully continue to do that.

And his head coach, Jesse Marsch, was equally clear that the team wants that player to appear on the field in MLS:

Alex, he knows that his next step is more quality, more goals, more assists, more chances, and I know he has it in him because I watched him in college, and he was a goal scorer and he was a final-play guy, and I'll be honest, I underestimated the ability he has to run and compete and push on that end.

He has one goal in 2017 to date: nothing to get overexcited about. But the goal should win him more time, and that will bring more opportunity for him to transition to the game he prefers to play: one that is defined by goals and assists, not work-rate and ground covered.

The team has recently reverted to the 4-2-3-1 formation it used last year, in large part, it would seem, because most of its players are more comfortable with that set-up than the 4-2-2-2. The tactical adjustment is also to Muyl’s benefit, in that there is an obvious place on the field for him in the 4-2-3-1. But he might be the only player in the starting lineup who doesn’t think of last season’s formation as a comfort zone. Muyl’s challenge is to get comfortable, and show the side of his game that comes out when that is achieved.

Photographer Matthew Stith was at the DCU game, and caught some shots of Muyl in action on the occasion of his first goal of the season. It might prove a turning point for the player, it might not - all we really know is it will give more time to find out.

For more of Matthew Stith’s work, visit his Instagram or website.