BY DAVE MARTINEZ
It only took 58 minutes for the New York Red Bulls to see an element they had been missing for quite some time.
Earning his first start in front of a packed crowd at Red Bull Arena, Lloyd Sam proved to be a game changer. His aggressive style and skill added an element to the Red Bulls’ attack that seemed to complete the team’s starting puzzle that Coach Hans Backe has desperately been trying to put together for the playoff run.
Henry aside, Sam played perhaps the most impactful role during Saturday’s 4-1 route of Toronto FC. Teammate Tim Cahill, who enjoyed perhaps his most active role on the attacking side of the ball since his arrival stateside, credited Sam for the team’s transformation.
“He’s a player that lights the pitch up,” Cahill said. “In this league, he can definitely bring it to the table when called upon.“
Unafraid to challenge defenders, the 27-year-old winger was a sparkplug, adding width that had been sorely missing since the team traded Dane Richards to Vancouver. But it wasn’t just Sam’s speed that drew attention. His crosses in the box were sent with a deft touch that his predecessor could only dream of matching. He played a ferocious two way game, routinely turning 60 yard runs on defense into 60 yard dashes on the attack. Moreover, Sam was smart off of the ball, filling in areas when his teammates would venture forward or making intelligent runs that spread the defense on attack.
“It was a great starting debut for Lloyd, which is what was needed – a bit of width,” Cahill said. “And you see when we’ve got Thierry, Kenny, myself, Joel coming up the left, we are actually lining up to score goals and are there abouts just trying to finish.”
Sam’s play caused a ripple effect across the field. The midfield foursome particularly looked in sync with each player commanding a defined role and executing their assignments. With Sam commanding a strong presence on the right, Dax McCarty was able to play the two way game that has made him invaluable to the team all season long. Cahill, who had been more prone to manning the midfield stripe than leading the march forward, found himself with room to venture into the final third knowing viable service could be had from Sam on the right or Lindpere on the left.
“I think you see it tonight,” Cahill said. “Off the pitch, he is fantastic, and on the training pitch, he is a great guy. He gives a different element going forward. He puts a bit of fear into the defenders which is exactly what we needed and he got a lot of crosses in.
“For us, we are a very attacking team when we get forward. We need that. I suppose it showed. We were lining up to finish goals.”
In context, all New York did was beat a road weary opponent who also happens to be the worst team in the league. However, it is the way the Red Bulls won that mattered most, and Sam was a huge part of that transformation. Coach Hans Backe didn’t have to force expensive, veteran players into an already tight lineup. The injury of Rafa Marquez allowed flexibility in the middle while the suspension of Connor Lade gave the Red Bulls coach the chance to bring back regular starting right back Brandon Barklage to the back four. Taking Teemu Tainio’s ineffectual form into account, Backe simply put out the best lineup to compete, giving Sam all the opening he needed to prove his worth.
“That is what I do,” Sam stated. “I mean, I’ve been watching a lot of game and I’ve been looking at the midfield with Tim [Cahill] and Dax [McCarty] and I’m going to get the ball all day so I think that complements me being on the right and them in the middle. I enjoyed myself today when I was on the pitch.”
Sam left the game in the 58th minute with tightness in his left hamstring. There has been no update on his condition, but the winger felt it was a minor setback.
“I don’t really want to miss any games,” Sam said. “You come out of the team, you don’t even know when you’ll come back in it. I don’t want to miss (any) games.”