Through six weeks of the 2014 MLS season, the New York Red Bulls have struggled to reach the form that saw them win the 2013 Supporters’ Shield.
New York have yet to record a victory through the first six games of the season (0-2-4), and their four points put them in a tie for the league’s third-worst record to date. But there have been some bright spots, and the brightest one is shining on the right-hand side of midfield.
Lloyd Sam has easily been the Red Bulls’ best field player to date this year, contributing pace and creativity from the wide areas. The English winger has three assists already, creating half of the team’s six goals thus far.
After picking up an injury in his first season, recovering through the beginning of his second as well as spending much of that season as an impact sub behind starter Eric Alexander, Sam admits his displays this season have been “the real him.”
“Last year I wasn’t fit coming into the season, so this is the real me. Last season I was injured, so it’s not really a mindset change,” he told Soccerwire.com after a recent training session at Red Bull Arena. “This is how I would have been coming in able.”
Sam joined the Red Bulls in 2012 after a long career in his native England. The thought of joining up with a Major League Soccer club hadn’t crossed his mind, until he was actively recruited by New York.
“I didn’t actively think about it. When they came calling, it was something that I then considered,” he said.
The 29-year old winger began his career at Charlton Athletic, moving from academy prospect to first-team regular over the course of a decade with the club. Along the way Sam also made stops at Leyton Orient, Sheffield Wednesday and Southend United on loan at various stages during his time at Charlton.
“I was there since the age of 14. I was there going in the evenings and when it got to 16, 17 years old we came in everyday, so that’s when I started to train with the first team,” he explained.
“When I got to 19, 20, I got my debut, it just went on from there. I came into the team, started playing more.”
As a younger player, one coach stood out in Sam’s mind that aided his development as a player, particularly as a winger.
“There was a coach I used to work with, Mark Robson, and he helped me a lot actually. He was a winger himself so he believed in me all the time.”
Although his years at Charlton saw Sam make his debut and take part in English Premier League action, they also featured bad luck and frustration. Sam was a member of the squad that got relegated from the Premier League in the 2006-07 season — and though one relegation was tough enough to handle, the Addicks were then relegated to League One at the end of the 2008-09 campaign.
“It’s frustrating, but I mean that happens. When you take one [relegation], they put a lot of money into going back up and when it doesn’t happen, that’s when it kind of knocks the club, knocks everyone, especially financially so we had to lose a lot of players when we went to League One,” Sam said.
“While we were in League One, we had a good manager [Phil Parkinson] there, we done well that season and ended up third or fourth and we ended in the play-offs. It’s a big blow to make play-offs and not to get promoted.”
Charlton have since worked their way back up the English pyramid. The Addicks are currently in The Championship, the second tier behind the Premier League. Although Sam was present at the club for some bad moments, he still tried to put a positive spin on his time there.
“It was a lot of bad luck, but I made some good friends,” he said. “It was a good time, but two relegations is tough.”
Sam then caught on with Leeds United, returning to his hometown.
“I was born in Leeds, so Leeds is in my heart already. So that was definitely a great experience,” he said.
Sam has kept his house there, continues to check on the club’s results and hopes to go back to the city at some point in the future.
However, Sam’s last season on the books at Leeds featured a loan to Notts County. Although successful on his loan spell, the club couldn’t afford to keep him, and didn’t offer him a new contract.
During his final year at Charlton and with Leeds, Sam nearly represented Ghana at the international level, the country of Sam’s parents’ birth. The winger first represented England at the U-20 level, but decided on a switch to the African nation.
However, bad luck followed him again.
“When they called me up, again I was unlucky with injuries at the time when they called me up. My manager didn’t let me go one time, so I got called up twice,” he said.
With continued impressive performances, Sam could potentially finally represent the Black Stars. Although he hasn’t shut the door on an international future, he knows the timing at the moment is difficult.
“Of course that’s always something I’m looking at, but it’s going to be tough to get in there now with the World Cup coming. But I haven’t ruled it out,” he admitted.
As for New York, Sam hopes his strong play out on the right flank helps add more silverware to the Red Bulls’ trophy cabinet. The club did not win its first trophy, last year’s Supporters’ Shield, until its 18th season.
“I’m concentrating on MLS Cup right now. That would be nice winning one of those,” Sam said. “We won Supporters’ Shield, that was good, but I want to win an MLS Cup.”
On a personal level, Sam has so far accomplished one of his MLS goals, seizing a starting role in midfield. He wants to continually be more involved in the RBNY attack and has made it his mission to add more goals and assists this season.
Is Sam dreaming of one more crack at the Premier League back home?
“I’m not even thinking that far because you just never know,” he said. “I never knew I’d end up in New York.”