The wide midfielders have been the subject of criticism for much of the year, mainly due to Alexander and Steele’s inconsistent performances. The two veterans have had some strong individual outings this year, but for every game in which they have done well, there is another in which they have struggled to make an impact.
Still, Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke has relied on them heavily for much of the year, so much so that he indicated early last week that they could be in for a rest due to the number of minutes they have accumulated this season. But when the lineups were announced for this past Sunday’s match at Chivas USA, one that New York shockingly lost 3-2, both Steele and Alexander were back in their usual spots on the left and right, respectively, and neither turned in a memorable performance.
“Whereas a couple of weeks ago they were tired, they felt great this [last] week and it coupled out with what I’ve said all year long: I’m not going to make changes unless somebody steps up,” Petke told reporters via a conference call Tuesday when asked why he stuck with Alexander and Steele vs. the Goats.
“I don’t think anybody has really stepped up. That’s why the reserve game today that we watched was huge and I made it clear to these guys, ‘I’m begging you guys to force me to make changes,’ not necessarily because I think we need to, but because that’s, as a coach, what I want."
Petke may feel that none of his reserves have made a case to start, but the numbers do not agree. Natural outside midfielder Lloyd Sam has played substantially less than Alexander (408 minutes compared to 2,027 minutes) and produced nearly identical statistics (two goals, one assist compared to two goals, two assists).
It’s clear, however, that Petke sees positives to having Alexander on the right and Steele on the left.
“Jonny is a workhorse,” said the rookie head coach. “Jonny is at his best when he’s not too deep and he is staying higher up the field and he’s getting crosses in. Eric is very good on the ball and he’s a natural central player that’s become more accustomed out wide. The way we’ve been playing, against Philadelphia last game we had 29 crosses, mainly from Jonny and Eric as well as some overlapping guys.
“For Eric, which he knows, I’m looking for a combination of continuing to improve as an outside player,” added Petke. “Getting wide crosses but also coming into the middle at times, which he’s more natural at. We’ve seen some games where he’s very good at doing that and some games that – not from his fault alone, this is a team sport – we haven’t found him or his touch has been off or just hasn’t gone their ways. You could say that about every player on our roster.”
Some may label Petke’s decision to continuously stick with Alexander and Steele as stubbornness, but for Petke it simply comes down to not seeing enough from his other options to force him to make an adjustment out wide.
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Until that happens, Steele and Alexander will remain daily starters.
“Like we talked about before, there was a point they were tired and if other players step up, then we could give these guys a rest,” Petke said. “But right now with eight games left and the position we’re in, I can’t just change a position, like I said, unless somebody proves that they can get in there and we’ll be okay.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by email at Franco8813@gmail.com.