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Dax McCarty looms large as Red Bulls prepare to face Fire in playoff opener

While the New York Red Bulls have multiple connections to the Chicago Fire, the name Dax McCarty will resonate when the two sides meet in the knock-out stage of the Major League Soccer playoffs on Wednesday night.

“I thought about Chicago and knew there would be a lot of talk about Dax,” said Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch.

Marsch appeared in 200 regular season matches for the Fire between 1998-2005 playing alongside his top assistant Chris Armas. One of their coaches during that period was the current Red Bulls Sporting Director, Denis Hamlett. All three won an MLS Cup together in 1998. However, those links fall short in comparison to McCarty whose sudden departure prior to the 2017 season provided a variety of emotions in the Red Bulls camp.

“Look, we are all very close to Dax, we miss Dax,” said Red Bulls midfielder, Sacha Kljestan. “Ultimately, as players we don’t make these decisions. This season was a learning process for a lot of us.”

“It makes the occasion a bit interesting with Dax over there,” said Red Bulls striker Bradley Wright-Phillips.

On January 16, Marsch orchestrated the trade of the Red Bulls captain to the Fire. McCarty, regarded as the unconditional leader of the team had appeared in 186 matches over a five-and-a-half-year span including 17 post-season contests. This will be McCarty’s third match against his former mates, which included an emotional return to Red Bull Arena. Despite the urging of his Fire teammates and staff at the conclusion of a 2-1 defeat, McCarty would not leave Harrison, New Jersey without signing every autograph request.

“If I reflect back on it, it was always a hard thing to do – it’s still hard to think about,” said Marsch. “But for me it was the right thing to do. And to see the way that Sean Davis and Tyler Adams have blossomed this year made me feel good about the fact that we needed to make room for those guys.”

Arguably the Fire’s most valuable player along with their talisman Nemanja Nikolic, the 12-year MLS veteran is a focal point in the Red Bulls game plan. In a deep lying midfield role, McCarty leads the Fire in touches.

“They are playing through Dax, he’s the guy that starts everything for them in the attack,” said Marsch. “The key for us will be to make him defend, to make him work and deal with us which takes more energy and gives him fewer touches.”

McCarty has contributed five assists in a function that limits his chances in front of goal. With 15 goals during his Red Bulls stint, McCarty has failed to score on only 14 shots in 27 matches. He was absent from several Fire games while representing the U.S. in World Cup qualifying.

“I’ve watched Dax this year and he has been very good,” said Marsch. “It’s been great to see him with the National Team. But whatever happens in this game and this series has nothing to do with the Dax story line.

“I don’t think it’s the goal of this game to go and beat Dax,” said Kljestan, the MLS assists leader for the second straight year. “This is not about us against Dax but a big part of the game is going to be me versus Dax so that’s going to be interesting.”

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