UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. – Injuries, a suspension and personnel switches have seen the New York Red Bulls’ starting lineup change quite a bit during the last few games. But two of the more constant figures on the team have been players that were brought in during the offseason and not expected to start much, if at all.
Eric Alexander and Jonny Steele have been an integral part of the Red Bulls in recent weeks, each manning an outside spot in New York’s midfield. Neither is traditionally an outside player but both Alexander and Steele have adjusted fairly well on the right and left flanks, respectively, helping the Red Bulls keep possession for large stretches while impressing head coach Mike Petke.
“To me, [Alexander has] been incredible for us,” said Petke earlier in the week. “He really has. Just what we’ve expected out of him and what he’s delivered, especially someone who is more comfortable in the middle being put out wide and still doing very well. He’s well-above average mentality as an MLS player. He’s doing the hard work, he’s a team player but he also has quality. We’re very happy with him.
“Jonny Steele, very similar situation,” continued Petke. “We didn’t expect him to come in to get significant minutes as he has, but first of all he’s earned it in practice and second of all he’s been fortunate to be in a situation where, before he got here, we didn’t have that set piece at left midfield. He’s certainly very comfortable and he’s done well. He gives us a lot of service from out there.”
Alexander (above) and Steele (right) were not given the nod in the season-opening 3-3 draw against the Portland Timbers, but they have started every game since then ahead of more natural outside players like Rubén Bover and Lloyd Sam. While Bover and Sam are more capable of breaking down opponents on the dribble, Alexander and Steele have made the switch out wide almost seamlessly with their abilities to find space in the attacking third for shots and crosses.
“Coming in, I knew I was only to get better and better week by week because I took four months off and never had a preseason,” Steele told MLSsoccer.com. “I’m still working hard every day to work on the game. Here we’re playing more wide than I did at [Real] Salt Lake and that helps me out because I’ve got crossing ability that comes into play.“
“I’ve played a little bit of it before, usually actually on the left side,” Alexander, who scored for New York in a Week 2 loss to the San Jose Earthquakes, told MLSsoccer.com. “This is my first time playing on the right. … It hasn’t been too tough to figure out, gotten some good instructions and pointers that maybe I didn’t know about playing outside from the coaches. It’s been a pretty good transition.”
The more games Steele and Alexander play on the outside, the easier the change will be for them and the next chance for them to continue their evolution as outside players will be on Sunday against the Chicago Fire.
Chicago is known to be a tough place for the Red Bulls to get a result in but if the last month is any indication, Steele and Alexander could be primed to help their club pick up a second straight victory.