New York Red Bulls' Mike Petke plans to platoon Lloyd Sam, Eric Alexander on right flank all year

The New York Red Bulls’ battle at right midfield between Lloyd Sam and Eric Alexander was a big talking point in 2013, and it might be again this season.

Sam, the more offensive-minded of the two players, was given the nod at that spot in the season opener in Vancouver this past Saturday and fared as well as anybody in New York's lineup in their humbling 4-1 loss.

Alexander, meanwhile, was deployed centrally and struggled against the Whitecaps’ dynamic midfielders as Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke tried to make up for the absence of Thierry Henry.

While the contrasting performances might seem to give Sam the edge in terms of the starting right midfield position, Petke said via a conference call Tuesday that he plans on once again rotating both the pacey Englishman and the hard-working Alexander this season.

Petke stuck with Alexander for much of the previous campaign, but began to alternate the versatile midfielder with Sam late in 2013 after the latter put together the type of impressive outings that were the norm this past preseason.

“The comments that I love to hear from my coaching staff is how much I raved about Lloyd going into last preseason,” said Petke. “Literally it took him months to get up to speed and months to get back to where I remembered him, and now all of a sudden coaches are saying, ‘Now, we understand what you were saying about Lloyd.’ That’s a good feeling.

“He’s done a lot this preseason that’s good, shown us that he wants to be on the field, shown us that he wants to do every little thing that we ask of him and that’s a great thing, not only for him but for us, for sure.”

Alexander may not be as dynamic a weapon on the right flank, but he does provide a valuable two-way style of play to a Red Bulls team that emphasizes hard work on both sides of the ball. That, combined with his technical abilities, tidy short-range passing and confidence gained from being called into the US national team camp in January, has put him in contention to start on any given week.

“I played Eric in the middle this past game, but I also see him just as much as an outside guy that could interchange with Lloyd,” said Petke. “I have no issues making these changes every couple of games, no matter how they’re both playing. It’s to keep players sharp, keep them rested, to not get them too comfortable.”

With Henry returning to the lineup this weekend after sitting out on the match at BC Place to avoid playing on artificial turf, Petke will likely have to decide who to start at right midfield between Sam and Alexander for this Saturday’s home opener vs. Colorado. It’s a choice that will surely be tough on Petke, but one he is prepared to make.

“There’s going to be tough decisions,” said Petke. “But I don’t see someone like Eric, someone like Lloyd, players like that, that are going to be sitting on the bench eight, nine, 10 games in a row unless their form dips.”

Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by email at Franco8813@gmail.com.