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Alex Muyl and the end of history in Harrison

How the Manhattan-born winger’s status in the squad and perception in the fanbase symbolized an era for the Red Bulls

New York Red Bulls Vs Atlanta United FC

If you’re anything like me or seemingly a million other people online, jogging your mind back about five years kind of freaks you out. Nothing is old yet per se, but damn, it’s really not recent either is it! We repeat this exercise every year and the beauty of sports is that there’s always a conveniently numbered season about four or five years in the past presenting newly uncanny horrors - Alex Muyl signed a homegrown deal with New York Red Bulls on December 22, 2015 and one day we’re all going to die.

By many metrics, Muyl being transferred to Nashville last week is not the biggest transfer out of the club in recent years: he’s not the most tenured, he hasn’t scored the most goals, and he’s not headed to Europe with the hopes and dreams of the BigSoccer hordes pinned on his back. Yet, if you want to understand the Red Bulls of the late 2010s, you might learn the most not by examining Robles, Wright-Phillips, or Adams, but the Manhattan-born rotation winger who once made childhood friend Timothee Chalamet look like an embarrassment in a Soulja Boy video tribute.

Remember how he signed? In the big class of six, heralding the arrival of Red Bull New York’s bold new 300-page youth strategy, flanked by the likes of Derrick Etienne and, uh, Scott Thomsen? They hadn’t quite figured it out yet; they cut half of these guys at the start of the season, when they probably could have invited them to pre-season camp. At this point in time Muyl was certainly closer to the Thomsen and Brandon Allen end of the hype spectrum than the likes of Adams or even Etienne. Although he had some youth national team caps under his belt, there was no obvious attribute or accolade that set Muyl apart from the other solid college players briefly signed that spring.

We had seen one season of Jesse Marsch’s “high press” but the intricacies of press triggers and fever dreams of a 4-2-2-2 formation were still in utero in the RBNY imagination. The Red Bulls were aggressively pressing up the pitch, but still had fairly conventional personnel and points of attack in BWP, Lloyd Sam, and the newly-arrived Sacha Kljestan. Huan Nguyen’s seminal “Ralfball” piece had only just been published on this site in September of 2015 and when we signed Georgetown Hoyas’ reigning assist king three months later, most fans still probably expected countable offensive production rather than workrate and pressing acumen.

To be fair to ourselves, we weren’t exactly pointed in the right direction by his first goal: a tidy curler in the side netting for the fifth goal of the famous 7-0 derby win. Muyl was the first player from the Five Boroughs to ever to play in the derby, and his goal added an extra bit of oomph to the nascent smack talk. While the derby has cooled in recent years, Muyl’s goal and presence in the Red Bulls lineup was a massive snub to the entire premise of City’s emergence as an ostensibly “more authentic” local team - a trend that had been so palpable early on that Muyl mentioned that many of his own friends had got caught up in the brand new marketing wave. In a sign of the narrative to come, match reports, blurbs, and features on Why New York City doesn’t really love Frank Lampard all counterposed Muyl’s local youth to the hilarious misfortune of Lampard and Pirlo. If not for Mike Grella’s 2015 nutmeg, Muyl’s derby debut goal may have become the emblem for early derby history.

SOCCER: JUL 03 MLS - Red Bulls at New York City FC Photo by Dennis Schneidler/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

By the end of 2016, Muyl was clearly being heralded as a homegrown success story, notably in contrast to Adams and future captain Davis, neither of which had broken through to the first team yet. In a bit of narrative I’d admittedly forgot, Brian Sciaretta underscored Muyl’s breakthrough by crediting him with sidelining designated player and fellow 7-0 goalscorer Gonzalo Verón. In hindsight the pairing is apt, even if the pageantry and panic about DPs comes off a little quaint.

No two players were bigger lightning rods of 2016-17 RBNY discourse. Verón was in many ways Muyl’s consummate foil: arriving from Argentina on a tidy transfer fee, DP contract, and accompanied by a grainy YouTube reel, he was what has come to be considered the “right” kind of MLS signing in the mold of Valeri, Piatti, or Acosta. On the field, he was everything Muyl wasn’t: fluid and graceful with a sharp touch and finish — when he could find his way into the game. Yet for seemingly overdetermined reasons, Verón never truly settled. When not injured, he never seemed to fit into varying forms of the “press,” and his off-the-field presence painted a picture of a homesick guy struggling to fit in — and seemingly not being met halfway by his club.

Muyl, by contrast, unexpectedly found regular minutes in the “energy drink” system taking shape, thanks to a high workrate and spatial awareness seemingly well beyond his years. He was a local, catching rides with teammates from his childhood home, and seemingly popular with players and coaches alike. If anything, Muyl’s quick adaptation suggested that younger players might have been optimal for the new generation of RBNY tactics: less risk of tactical confusion when a player doesn’t have years of professional experience to purge or a distant home to pine for.

But more than anywhere else, the two men were foils in the fan and media discourse. If Verón’s frustrated false starts were a sign of untapped potential just around the corner — if only Jesse would play him! — for many, Muyl became the symbol of everything wrong. The team was supposedly too cheap, too local, too young, too clumsy. Regardless of his essential pressing contributions, Muyl was always plagued by the simple expectation for goals, assists, stepovers...whatever.

It’s hard to say exactly when the boos started (there was, to my memory, no singular event like Emmanuel Eboue’s Emirates Stadium nightmare and subsequent redemption to beloved cult hero) but if you went to Red Bull Arena between 2016-19 - or even just logged on Facebook - you likely heard some abuse hurled Muyl’s way. But the most notable single match I can come up with as a visible peak of Muyl skepticism also illustrates the cognitive dissonance in the fanbase of him as a player and as a symbol of the Red Bull way.

In June 2018, a Red Bulls team on the way to setting a league points record sweated through one of their most frustrating games of the season...as they defeated Seattle 2-1. The source of frustration was that this match really should have been closer to 4-0, and there was an immediate, widespread reaction that this was partly Alex Muyl’s fault. Incredibly, the flashpoint was the very last touch of the game, after Muyl failed to slide a through ball to either of his teammates in a 3-on-1 break. On the highlights, you can still see Daniel Royer scream with all his body, and Derrick Etienne Jr. hop up and down in muted frustration. If you were in the stadium, you saw then-captain Luis Robles race out of goal to scold Muyl, and the postgame Facebook Live stream seemed to catch Aaron Long and others blowing off steam in his direction before being separated.

New York Red Bulls Vs Orlando City Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

Much of the RBNY fanbase loudly felt Muyl’s technical deficiencies held the team back, and this night I saw their point. I didn’t think that Muyl had played poorly per se (the biggest miss of the night was actually a quick open-goal rebound put over the bar by Florian Valot) but rather selfishly, and with undue arrogance that a 2-0 lead was sufficient to allow such play. Harry Shipp’s late goal to bring the game within one seemed to validate this concern.

In hindsight from the bleaker times of 2020, it is obviously such a good problem to have had. Not only that we barely won, but even the variety of anger you see from his teammates. This is a snapshot of a team flying high, constantly pushing not only for more ruthless results but consistently ruthless practice in every minute of live play. Suffice it to say, this attitude has dried up in the last year along with all the points. In many ways the write-up by Dylan Butler for the MLS website - in which he awards Muyl man of the match following all the turbulence - provides a fitting summation of the dissonance in the perceptions of Muyl in this era:

Red Bulls fans may protest, but Alex Muyl worked his socks off and pressured Frei and his defenders throughout. The only thing missing on this night was a deserved goal.

This Seattle match is just one date I happened to argue with my friends about - if you’re a Red Bulls fan you likely have your own collection of nights where Muyl ended up a fitting symbol of everything that went right or wrong. For future generations Muyl’s name will appear on the team sheet for a glittering stretch of recent club history: in addition to the aforementioned derbies, he delayed a newly-signed Kaku’s immersion into the starting lineup with characteristic performances against Tijuana, arguably the greatest fixture result in club history. He was part of the squad that drilled Atlanta 2-0 with both Bradley Wright-Phillips and Tyler Adams absent in the thick of the 2018 shield race - arguably the last truly convincing victory we’ve seen the Red Bulls earn.

In the past year, glimpses of both Alex Muyl and a successful team to fret about him holding back became almost non-existent. After years of a Forrest Gump-like presence in the most important flashpoints of the club’s recent history, the only notable event of 2019 for Muyl was a contract extension signed in May. The next closest I manage is, again, from the August derby game at Yankee Stadium. The image in mind isn’t the goal he scored, which ended up in vain following yet another listless 2019 RBNY performance - but a couple minutes later when he was shoved into the advertising boards and approached the referee in disbelieving protest, bloody hands outstretched. The Christ figure bit writes itself, so I’ll just say that in a season of doldrums and false starts from a team that never seemed like they expected to win anything, here stood Alex Muyl banging in a goal and bleeding for the cause until the end.

The departure of Muyl in many ways closes a chapter for the club and the discourse around it. Now that it’s over, it’s clear that the fan caricatures of Gonzalo Verón and Alex Muyl were symptoms of a stronger club: a solution in search of a problem, a problem in search of a solution, respectively. Muyl more than any other RBNY player is a decoder ring of the “energy drink” era in which the club set out a clear ethos that at the very least gave the fans something to orient their expectations for the club around rather than trying and failing to have a 1-0-0 record every week.

I hope Alex has fun in Nashville, cause I’m sure not having fun here anymore.