BY DAVE MARTINEZ
In times of great need, unlikely heroes emerge. For the New York Red Bulls, Dax McCarty has proudly carried the mantle of leadership in the face of daunting odds.
“I feel good. I definitely feel like I’m starting to play like I was in Dallas a few years ago when we made that MLS Cup run,” McCarty told reporters after New York’s 1-0 shutout of the Houston Dynamo.
“It’s just about being comfortable. I’m more comfortable with the guys; I’m more comfortable with the team, the coaches, everything about it. Credit goes to the guys on the team for knowing my tendencies, and it’s just about learning what the guys are all about. I just have confidence and I think our whole team is starting to gain confidence with each win.”
New York is riding a three game winning streak, including 270 minutes of shutout soccer, in spite of recent injuries and suspensions that have decimated the side. Team captain and leading scorer Thierry Henry tops the list of the wounded which includes Wilman Conde, Teemu Tainio, Roy Miller, Stephen Keel, Jan Gunnar Solli, and Juan Agudelo. A three game suspension to Designated Player Rafa Marquez only exacerbated matters.
In their absence, McCarty has become an all purpose general on the pitch. Traditionally a transitional two-way player, Dax has been forced to adjust his game to a more physical, central defensive role. The change has been vital to keeping the team competitive, and McCarty has relished the challenge.
“When you’re (a defensive midfielder), there’s no way you can get away with being soft, there’s no way you can get away with letting guys get by you easily,” he said. “That’s something I definitely enjoy.”
The American midfielder has surprised many with his ability to get stuck in on opposing attackers. “I love doing that stuff,” he said. “It’s not something you get to do that often when you’re higher up the field.”
“No matter where I am on the field, I’m going to definitely try to bring that element. If I can get stuck in some defenders, I’ll try to do that,” he remarked with a smile. “Dish out a little punishment that they give.”
His play has made him a vital leader for a makeshift backline and their rookie goalkeeper.
“He’s been huge for us the past three games – really all season but especially the past three games with a bunch of our guys out,” goalkeeper Ryan Meara observed. “Ninety minutes – he brings it. He runs and runs and it helps the back four out so much because it cuts off so much service to their forwards. Again today, he was great.”
Center back Markus Holgersson, who captained the Red Bulls once again on Wednesday, agreed.
“He’s a good player and that’s a good position for him,” he said.
“I’m a versatile guy,” McCarty said. “I think I can adjust to whatever positions I need to play. If that’s my position from here on out, I’ll make it my own and continue to help the guys on defense.”
Though he has excelled as a defensive midfielder, his long term prospects at the position are questionable with a returning Rafa Marquez ready to rejoin the side.
“I don’t think it’s been discussed,” McCarty said when asked about his future after Marquez returns with the team. “Whatever Hans sees for the team, I think it’s really based on our opponent and who we are playing. I think Hans knows that with myself and with Rafa, we are both pretty versatile players. Wherever he sees me going forward with Rafa, we haven’t spoken about it. Once everyone’s fully healthy, we will discuss that more.”
Until that time comes, McCarty continues to relish his role as a team leader.
“Look, let’s give ourselves a lot of credit for having great character and pulling these games out, but we’re not going to continue to hang on to these 1-0 leads. We need to start putting teams to the sword a little bit earlier and we need to get that second goal. But look, for a young backline and a young goalkeeper, three 1-0 wins – you can’t get much better than that.”