From Canons Park to New York

PATRICK MAYR
SPORTS EDITOR

When Lloyd Sam (’02) joined ASL’s football program with his brother Andrew (’00) during his freshman year, the then boys varsity football coaches Martin Hackett and Robert Carter were impressed by the technically gifted yet physically unassuming player. “His pace, touch and movement were different class,” Hackett said. “Yet, when he joined us at 14, he was still pretty small.”
During his freshman season, Sam insisted on playing with the junior varsity team in order stay with his friends, despite his coaches’ inclination to play him on the varsity team. After a few injuries to key varsity players, however, Sam was called up to the varsity team and played an integral part at the ISST tournament, in which he was nominated as a candidate for the All-Tournament team.

During the following years, Sam became a key fixture in the varsity team’s starting 11 players and was the team’s top playmaker, operating as an attacking midfielder. His influence was such that ASL last won an ISST Football tournament when Sam played during his sophomore year.

Sam’s performances with the school team prompted Hackett to introduce him to professional clubs in London. “Sam’s ability at school level was dramatic in the sense that he was that much better than everyone else,” Hackett said. “He would pick the ball up in his own half, dribble past the opposition players and score a goal. I decided to take him to the Arsenal [Football Club] because he had the technical qualities to succeed there.”

After training at the Arsenal Youth Academy for a couple of months, however, Sam was let go by the club’s Youth Academy director Liam Brady. Following a trial with Wimbledon F.C., Sam settled in at Charlton Athletic F.C. and progressed through the ranks there.

Balancing school work and extensive footballing commitments would have seemed like a daunting task, yet Sam managed to pull through and said that he always had the school’s support. “ASL was with me the entire time. They had an understanding about what I had to do soccer-wise. And even in my last year they let me leave school two classes early each Wednesday so I could train at Charlton,” he said. “If ASL weren’t so accommodating to my soccer needs it would have been a lot more difficult.”

After Sam graduated from ASL in 2002, he continued to feature for the Charlton youth team until 2003 when, at the age of 18, he signed his first professional contract, officially committing to the club.

When Sam returned to Charlton following a brief loan spell with fellow London team Leyton Orient, Sam experienced one of the proudest moments of his career during the last match of the 2004-2005 Premier League season, coming on as a substitute in the 76th minute against Crystal Palace to make his first-team debut.

“I remember being nervous on the bench before coming on and then they called me on and my nerves were running high,” he said. “Once I got on the pitch I was fine though. You work so hard to play at the level you want to get to and once it happens you just have to stay calm and do your best.”

For Sam, it was the accumulation of years of hard work that had finally resulted in the fulfillment of his ultimate dream. “I played in a lot of big stadiums against the likes of Manchester United, Tottenham and against some great players,” he said. “Playing at that level was something I had always dreamed of doing and, when I finally did, the feeling was unbelievable.”
Yet Sam’s career has at times been marred by injuries that have kept him out of action at crucial times. Hackett, who still keeps in touch with his former protegée, said that many of Sam’s injuries are hamstring-related, which are often “associated with pacy players.” Hackett also said that many of Sam’s injuries came at unlucky times because they occurred when he was starting to play regularly for a first-team.

Following several more loan spells away from Charlton, Sam returned to the club before it experienced a perpetual decline in form. Formerly the epitome of a stable mid-tier team in the Premier League, Charlton suffered a period of managerial instability which saw them slide down the footballing divisions. After two relegations in three years, Charlton was no longer lining up against the best teams in the country, but playing in the third tier of English football.

When Charlton failed to gain promotion back to the Championship (the second tier) in 2010, Sam was not offered a renewed contract because the club could
not afford to pay him.

Sam had no difficulty finding another team, and after interest from several clubs ended up joining his hometown team, Leeds United.
Leeds had just gained a promotion to the Championship and were reshuffling their squad to stage a competitive fight in the higher division. The team signed Sam on a two-year contract.
Another injury put a shadow over Sam’s promising start at Leeds and ruled him out of large parts of the team’s campaign for the season.The following year, Sam was loaned out to Notts County in the middle of the season by new Leeds manager Neil Warnock.

After his brief yet successful spell with Notts County came to an end, Sam was told by Warnock that his contract would not be renewed and that he would be released come the end of the season.
Sam did not go long without a club, however. The New York Red Bulls came calling and invited him over to their training ground for a trial in the summer of 2012.“I got a call from the Red Bulls saying they wanted a player like me and that they wanted me to come over to see what sort of condition I was in,” he said.

After impressing during the trial, the prospect of playing alongside players such as former F.C. Barcelona defender Rafael Marquez and ex-Arsenal striker Thierry Henry was too good to turn down, and Sam signed a one-year contract with the team.

As a passionate Arsenal supporter, Sam was enticed by the reality of playing next to club legend Henry. “It’s unbelievable because I’m an Arsenal fan as well, so it’s a big deal for me,” he said. “He’s one of my all-time idols and somebody you can learn a lot from. He’s an intense character and he wants to win every single game he’s in.”
Sam has enjoyed a bright start to his Red Bulls career, though he suffered an injury after the first few games of the season which kept him out for the remainder of the season. Sam’s performances prior to the injury did enough to impress coach Mike Petke, though, and he was rewarded with a contract extension at the end of last season. “I’m really happy having signed the extension,” Sam said. “Now I can just concentrate on playing soccer and doing my best for the team.”

Going forward, Sam said that the team can build on last year’s narrow elimination in the MLS semi-finals at the hands of D.C. United and could go on to win the MLS championship. “I think this is our year,” he said. “There has been a lot of energy around from us not winning the league last year, and I think this year we can do it.”

With the Red Bulls continuing to exert their financial prowess by signing players who have formerly plied their trade in the top leagues of Europe, such as Lyon’s former free-kick specialist Juninho Pernambucano, the MLS trophy remains a very realistic possibility for Sam and his team.

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