Dax McCarty thinks he's getting sappy in his old age, 25.
McCarty, already a seven-year MLS veteran, has emerged as a leader on one of league's most high-profile teams, the New York Red Bulls, but the last few years have been trying.
McCarty left FC Dallas after a five-year run that ended with an MLS Cup final appearance in 2010 via a series of moves that eventually took him to D.C. United. The club immediately made him captain. He took pride in the challenge.
United got off to an underwhelming start in 2011. McCarty started the first 10 games in which the club went 3-4-3 and amassed a goal difference of minus-6. He was benched.
"Maybe it was a little to soon for me," McCarty said. "Maybe that's part of the reason I didn't play too well in D.C. I took a lot of pressure on myself to try to lead the other guys and make sure they were playing well, and I didn't focus enough on myself."
By June, with three months of the season gone, he was traded to New York in a blindsiding move.
"At the time I looked at it as D.C. United doesn't think I'm good enough to be there," he said, "and that was a tough realization for me to come to."
Once the initial frustration wore off, the move proved to be exactly what McCarty needed: a chance to leave the pressure of leadership to players like Thierry Henry so he could focus on his own play while helping younger players here and there.
"It was such a big change of environment to come to a club with the type of players that we have at New York," Red Bulls coach Mike Petke said. "Once he got over that, last year he was arguably one of our best players."
But the 2012 season brought another opportunity for McCarty to lead, one he seized as the team faced a string of injuries at the outset. Defenders Stephen Keel (back), Jan Gunnar Solli (calf), Wilman Conde (groin), Roy Miller (knee), midfielder Teemu Tainio (knee) and striker Juan Agudelo (knee) all missed time.
"It was crazy," McCarty said. "I had never seen so many injuries to so many key players in such a short amount of time. For me, that was really my chance to take this team and try to lead the guys that were on the field. And I think we proved a lot of people wrong."
With the man they call the Ginger Ninja at the helm, the Red Bulls, paradoxically, thrived as injury reports worsened. McCarty dropped into a deeper position as the defense was stripped of protection. He thrived, helping the Red Bulls to the playoffs, where they fell in the conference semifinals for the second straight year.
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"Dax is at his best when he's doing the work of a holding midfielder," Petke said. "To me that's his route to the national team and his route to the next level. It's not easy sometimes for players to accept a more defensive role, but Dax has and I'd love to see him in that position for the U.S. national team."
McCarty never let go of his leading role, even as New York's big-time players returned. He led the team in minutes played and is the only outfield player to play every minute for the Red Bulls (2-4-2) this season.
"As much as I try to defer to the guys who have the big game experience," McCarty said, "it's hard for me, too, because I think I have natural leadership instincts that just want to come out whenever I'm on the field."
But there's more to McCarty's resurgence in New York than simple leadership and professionalism.
There's a genuine bond with the club. You could see it when he fell to his knees with his head in his hands after Portland completed its comeback to draw 3-3 in the season opener. You could hear it when he talked about how much the "18 years and no cups" chant that opposing teams' fans like to sing gets under his skin.
Having faced personal struggles, McCarty has embraced the weight of the club's tortured history (they're the only surviving MLS original not to have won a competitive trophy), even if he has only just become part of it himself.
"I think everyone gets the sense that being part of this city and the Red Bulls organization is more than just playing games," McCarty said. "It's about wearing that burden of having no trophies on your sleeve every game, because the fans certainly do. The fans hear it plenty."
So when will the fans stop hearing it?
McCarty has high hopes for this season, despite New York's inauspicious start. From his position on the field he can see all the team's attacking elements coming together. Once they begin to click, he said, a championship will be the only measure of success.
Perhaps that's one more reason McCarty has taken a shining to the Red Bulls. For all his successes in Dallas he was never quite able to lift that cup, a feeling Gotham's fan base is all too familiar with.
"I've tasted that chance to win," said McCarty, "and I failed. For me personally that's my goal."
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