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An unsung, two-way hero reintroduces himself to fickle New York fans from the opposite wing

Red Bull Arena generally does not have a poor viewing seat or section. The highest, upper corner remains unknown territory for this author, but for the most part, games have been witnessed from majority of the beautiful stadium. What is phenomenal about the arena though is how much a better vantage point, namely a seat closer to the sidelines, can dramatically alter the live experience. 

Eric Alexander controls an aerial ball - Image courtesy of Phillysoccerpage.com

Eric Alexander controls an aerial ball – Image courtesy of Phillysoccerpage.com

Unfortunately, night games scheduled on Wednesdays in Harrison, N.J. are usually not must-see, sold-out events. Fortunately, this means promotions and discounts are plentiful for fans interested in the midweek occasion.

Somewhat related, these circumstances culminate in the act of sneaking down a few sections and rows, until one finds the lovely club seats situated next to the benches, empty and longing for temporary occupation by a warm body.

From here, the game comes alive.

A few groans erupted in the direction of one player, who is curiously not a member of the opposition.

A perfect touch and protection of the ball in a tight area near the touchline, with little allowance for error in concentration, is handled expertly by the left midfielder of the New York Red Bulls. His subsequent pass inside, however, let down the initial control.

“You’re useless,” one neighboring fan shouted to orchestrate a chorus of laughter from similarly disgruntled individuals.

The targeted player subjected to this abuse was the home side’s number 12 and new two-way, left winger, Eric Alexander. He is perhaps the most dividing figure of opinion under Mike Petke’s tenure as head coach so far.

What is odd about the proximate location to the touchline is that what one says, whether it be a positive or negative statement, is more likely to be heard by the heroes and villains battling on the field.

At one point in the first half, Alexander even appeared to instinctively turn to face his main antagonist from the stands, who repeatedly shouted his name to earn comedic praise from his friends.

Never mind the intentions of the supposed fan (which are highly questionable), why should the Indiana University alum experience the brunt of the pressure for New York’s high expectations?

According to Whoscored.com, Alexander took 70 touches (eight more than Thierry Henry), maintained a 77 accuracy percentage and only had two turnovers (probably a surprising statistic to observers who thought he lost the ball on every possession). More importantly, he recorded two assists.

The first was a gimmicky secondary assist (a relatively significant gesture that lacks substantial criteria for when and why one is given), while the second was a perfect left-footed cross from the byline that pinpointed one of Lloyd Sam’s or Tim Cahill’s run. Eventually replays illustrated that it was the English winger who got his head to the cross, but it was the Australian midfielder who heaped lavish praise on his underrated teammate.

“What I don’t understand was: Last year, Eric was one of the most valuable players and, for me, he was my player of the season,” said Red Bulls midfielder Tim Cahill. “He’s a player that gets on with it and stays under the radar and just does his job. He never asks for plaudits, and there’s a reason why he went away with the American national team and he got on the pitch [vs. South Korea in January], because [US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann] senses quality.”

“I always told everyone to watch out for Eric, and everyone still wants Eric to be the first sub or it’s an easy option for Eric to come off [in a game], but if you know football, then you know he’s a class player and he’s a team player.”

Speaking of that cameo for the United States men’s national team in January, Alexander, one of only two Red Bulls selected to the annual January camp, played instead of his longtime teammate, Dax McCarty. Yes, they play in different positions and Alexander is more versatile, but the public clamoring from fans and media alike, toward McCarty earning more appearances for his consistent performances since 2012, was not answered.

Perplexed onlookers alternatively saw the man with a “deer in the headlights look” (as some Facebook users comment in discussion pages) play in his unnatural position on the left-wing for Jurgen Klinsmann’s side. Legendary French striker, Henry, joined Cahill in praising Alexander for his unselfish acceptance to play wherever the coaches want him, even if it’s in places that he is not necessarily comfortable in.

“Eric’s been playing well,” said Henry. “No wonder why he came on when he went to the national team. I’ve been saying for a very long time that he’s kind of the unsung hero. People don’t talk too much about him, but today he was brilliant for us. Mike asked him to play on the left, [and] he did it. Sometimes he plays in front of the defense, sometimes he plays on the right, sometimes he doesn’t play, [and] he doesn’t moan. He’s trying to do the best for the team, and I guess he got his reward tonight.”

Thus far in the 2014 season, Alexander bounced around in multiple positions. Star performer Sam locked down the right, two-way wing spot. Peguy Luyindula possesses the advantage to start in front of McCarty in central midfield. That is most likely suitable for Alexander as the left side of pitch may be his new, hopefully permanent, home.

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