It took over a month for the Red Bulls to record a victory in league play, but after their 2-0 win over the Houston Dynamo Sunday, it appears the team has finally gotten its wings. In this case, their left and right wings.
Unheralded at the start of the 2013 season, both Jonny Steele and Eric Alexander have solidified places in New York's starting 11 as the wide midfielders. Industrious and – most importantly – creative, the two formerly unknown players are now becoming undroppable members of Coach Mike Petke's squad.
“If you had told me when we picked Jonny and Eric up that they were going to be bona fide starters at this point of the season, I probably would have said, 'probably not,'" Petke said."They're workman-like; in a league like this, outworking and outhustling the other bit of quality is key. They epitomize that.”
Acquired during an offseason trade with FC Dallas, the 25-year-old Alexander has seized the right midfield role for himself. His running and hard work are key to an effective impact on the field, with his work rate duplicated on the other side by Steele. The 27-year-old Northern Irishman has finally found his home after being part of 12 teams prior to joining the Red Bulls, including stints playing indoor soccer and a litany of stops in the lower divisions of organized American soccer.
Both midfielders made their mark during the Red Bulls' victory, playing key roles in New York's two goals. Alexander's inch-perfect pass set up a sprinting Fabian Espindola for the game-opening goal in the 60th minute, while Steele got on the score sheet after a well-worked team goal, blasting a rocket of a shot past Dynamo keeper, Tally Hall in the 88th minute.
Steele was humble about scoring his first goal of the season and explained that the tally was important, but more for what it meant – sealing a Red Bulls win.
“Everything I do is for the team; that goal I don't look at is as me getting a goal, I see it as us winning the game,” Steele said. “It gave us a cushion up 2-0 with 10 minutes left, it gave us a little bit of breathing space.”
While their contributions were more noticeable on Sunday, the stars of the Red Bulls said their understated yet solid play hasn't gone unnoticed.
“(Those) two players are vital to our team,” said Tim Cahill after the game. “Jonny's been an exceptional player that exceeds all expectations of a footballer for where he's at ... they're players that work for the team and not for themselves and in the end, they get their reward.”
The team captain agreed with Cahill's assessment, but gave special kudos to Alexander for the shift he put in out wide.
“For me, the key [Sunday] was Eric Alexander,” Thierry Henry said. “He turned [forward] every time he had the ball. That is the key in football; if you play the ball back or play the ball sideways, you're not going to go anywhere. But [against the Dynamo], every time he got the ball and turned forward … I could only tell him, 'well done' every single time. We told him during the week, 'you're a creative midfielder, you have to create.' And he did it. We all have faith in him that he can do it.”
After a tremendous first season for Connor Lade, it's been tough sledding for the local boy from Livingston, NJ.
The 23-year-old made 22 starts last season for the Red Bulls, but had only make two appearances so far in 2013 and hadn't started in a league game until Sunday's match.
The left back received another opportunity to reclaim his starting place after Roy Miller was selected for Costa Rica's Gold Cup squad and Heath Pearce was declared out for the season after undergoing hip surgery. He didn't disappoint, playing very well and delighting coach Petke with his performance. Petke admitted it hasn't been easy for Lade and the coach has wanted to see a rise in standards in the left back's play.
“When [Connor] came back from the national into the preseason camp, he was obviously not sharp by his own admission. It was a lot that he went through. Though he earned it, he was given a lot very soon. I had a long talk with him and I was very blunt with him because I know I care about him. I want to him succeed, but at the end of the day, I'm not going to play him because he's a homegrown player or that he's a local boy … he has to earn it.”
While Lade admitted he was rusty and was lacking fitness, the youngster was settled into the game and played well against Houston. The defender stated he hopes to build off of the performance and make a claim to be the first choice again.
“I'm not one to make excuses,” he said after the game. “I think every time you come back [to the lineup], you got to be prepared. Maybe I was a step behind, but I'm just working at it and I'll try to reclaim my form and get back in the starting spot.”
UP NEXT: COLORADO RAPIDS
It's a short turnaround for the Red Bulls, as they embark on a July 4 match against the Colorado Rapids. Full coverage begins at 9 PM on MSG.
Sitting sixth in the Western Conference, the Rapids are on a high after a dramatic 4-3 win against the Montreal Impact Saturday, scoring the go-ahead goal in second-half stoppage time. New York hasn't recorded a road win since May 4 against Columbus and the Red Bulls know they'll have to be on top of their game to get a result on the road.
“It's always difficult to win away from home in this league, but we're going to have to try and do it,” Henry said. “We all know [Colorado] isn't an easy place to go, the altitude and trying to deal with the heat. It won't be easy, but we're going to have to try and get some points away from home.”
“Colorado is a team that's on form right now,” added Dax McCarty. “They're a team that's dangerous. We traditionally haven't done very well there. We need to go in there with the mindset we had [Sunday]. We just have to match their intensity."