Red Bulls midfielder Lloyd Sam has turned red, white and blue, despite his strong British accent and reference to the sport of “football” in his interviews.
As Sam has become irreplaceable in the starting lineup, he's also becoming engrained in American culture — and nothing is more quintessentially American than fantasy sports.
Sam came in second place in the Red Bulls' fantasy football league — that is NFL football, not soccer — last year and won the team's March Madness bracket challenge. He won't talk about how much money he's made with these triumphs but fantasy football commissioner Luis Robles, the team's starting goalkeeper, is among those impressed with Sam's recent run in their locker room games.
Of course, Sam has never even been to an NFL game.
“You'd have to say that March Madness fell in his favor, but to his credit, he had UConn going far,” goalkeeper Luis Robles. “He put his heart into it. He does his research. We know he's already readying himself for next year's fantasy football. If he puts his name to something he wants to win.”
His play this season is not a fantasy.
At right midfield, Sam is turning in winning performances even as his Red Bulls have struggled in their defense of the Supporters Shield. A year ago, he came into his first full MLS campaign entrenched on the bench, out of shape and more of a late-game spark. This year, he's started every match.
“I think the start to this year is the best I've consistently played,” Sam said. “I've had times in my career that I've played well. I'd like to give it a few more games before I say this is the best, but it is a good start. I've done a lot, going back to preseason. It was a big year for me, especially after what happened last year. I'm eating smarter, I'm training more and I trained more before we came back to come in stronger. I know what to expect.”
It is clear he's far more fit this year. In 2013, Sam played a full match just twice. But this season he's already gone the full 90 minutes in eight matches and at least 80 minutes three times. He's been dangerous in the final third with one goal and five assists. For comparison, he had just two MLS assists coming into 2014.
A year ago, he was far from the starting lineup. Now, head coach Mike Petke can pencil in the steady attacker.
“Lloyd is someone who came into preseason with the right mentality this year. From the first day on he was in good shape, he was good mentally,” Petke said. “He was running on all cylinders with the ball, unlike last year [when] it took him four or five months to get there. Him starting off with the right mindset this year set the tone of his intentions and he never really looked back from there.”
Follow Red Bulls writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.