Just days after D.C. United head coach Ben Olsen talked about making some moves, the club has traded general allocation money to the New York Red Bulls for winger Lloyd Sam. Sam, a 31 year old born in England but capped once for Ghana’s national team, possesses a green card (and thus will not count as an international on the Black-and-Red’s roster). The move fits into an established pattern for United, who have had far more success acquiring players from within MLS or via the college draft than in going abroad (though early returns on this year’s international signings have been promising).
Sam came to MLS in the summer of 2012 following a long career in England, mostly in the Championship with Charlton Athletic and Leeds United. A knee injury limited him to 5 appearances that year, and it took him some time to convince Mike Petke to see him as something more than a super sub in 2013. However, once Sam forced his way into a starting role as NYRB’s right winger, he became one of the most productive wide men in MLS. Across 2014 and 2015, Sam had 14 goals and 16 assists in 63 appearances, making him a key part of one of MLS’s highest-scoring teams. Sam is in the all-time top 10 for both goals and assists for the Red Bulls/Metrostars franchise. As of May, Sam’s salary was listed as $230,000 base/$240,000 guaranteed by the MLS Players Union.
This year, however, Sam has seen a slight dip in production. He has 1 goal and 4 assists in 16 appearances, numbers that are in part due to Jesse Marsch’s occasional attempts to work a 4222 formation into the mix. That means no natural role for Sam in those instances. He’s also seen more competition for his spot this year, between attempts to find a role for expensive DP signing Gonzalo Veron and promising rookie Alex Muyl.
With United, Sam would be competing with some fellow MLS veterans for time. Lamar Neagle and Fabian Espindola have started two straight games as the wingers in a 4141 set-up, while Patrick Nyarko was arguably United’s best player in 2016 until a recent concussion pushed him to the sidelines. Nyarko is said to be close to a return, leaving four players who have all had success in this league fighting for two spots in the lineup. That is a very good problem for Olsen to deal with, though it’s not necessarily the best sign for Miguel Aguilar and Rob Vincent. Adding Sam is also a further indicator that Chris Rolfe (concussion) may be unable to play any sort of role for the club this season.
United fans can expect a player with a pretty varied set of skills. Initially, Sam appeared to be an old-fashioned pure winger who stayed wide and used his dribbling ability to get in behind left backs and create chances for others. However, last year in particular he showed that he can be devastating when cutting inside to either go to goal himself or dish off passes to others. Sam has spent his career playing as a right winger, though the same could be said of Nyarko before Olsen’s decision to start using him as an inverted player on the left in recent months. Nyarko continued to produce, and it is safe to suspect that we could see Sam deployed in a very similar manner.
Of course, most United fans that know anything about Sam will note that he has a long history of tormenting the Black-and-Red. In 13 total appearances against United, Sam has 5 goals and 1 assist. To put that in context, 25% of his career MLS goals have come against the Black-and-Red. Sam scored for the Red Bulls in all three regular season meetings between the clubs in 2015.