Dax McCarty has been a member of the New York Red Bulls since June 2011. After just 28 months, he’s become the hard-luck club’s third most senior player. He’s understands and appreciates the organization's history, which “definitely has a bearing on a team’s mentality,” he said. And he feels a bond with fans on both sides of the Hudson River.
“Living in Manhattan [after moving from Hoboken], it’s a different experience than anything I’ve had before,” the 26-year-old midfielder told SI.com. “You see so many people, and you watch them and pass them and you don’t think anything of it until somebody comes up to you and says, ‘Good luck on Saturday.’ It’s some person who you’d think has no idea what the Red Bulls are. That’s the beauty of this city. When they come up to you, it’s a feeling of pride. Not only do I live in one of the great cities in the world and represent a great organization, but I feel that pride when I’m recognized [for doing so].”
Those fans, the ones who travel to Red Bull Arena by train from the five boroughs or by car from the sprawling suburbs of New Jersey, are among sports’ most patient. They have waited and suffered and agonized as their team has fallen short time and again. They know full well, and are reminded constantly, that New York remains the only 20th-century MLS club that has failed to win one of American soccer’s three major honors -- the MLS Cup, U.S. Open Cup and Supporters Shield.
In 2003, New York lost the Open Cup final to the Chicago Fire. Five years later, it lost an MLS Cup final to the Columbus Crew. Sunday afternoon, McCarty hopes, will be the charm. Before a sold-out crowd in Harrison, NJ, the Red Bulls (16-9-8) will take the field against Chicago just 90 minutes from clinching the league’s best regular season record and with it, the Shield.
McCarty wants to win it badly. Three points would do the trick. It should be noted, however, that there are no illusions inside the Red Bull locker room. As first-year coach Mike Petke pointed out to SI.com last month, his hometown Giants were the ones who earned a parade in February 2008, not the 16-0 New England Patriots.
New York captain Thierry Henry, who's won just about everything important trophy there is, concurred. “It will be more than amazing to win the Supporters’ Shield. But there is something bigger than that after," he told MLSSoccer.com.
Bigger, yes, but probably not more appropriate or symbolic. For Petke, the Long Island native who has Red Bull running through his veins, and for McCarty, the new New Yorker whose determination and intelligence is so integral to his team’s success, the Shield represents just reward for supporters who deserve one. MLS had no intention of honoring the club with the regular season’s best record when play began in 1996. So fans took it upon themselves to do so. A small group from Kansas City led the way and the Shield was presented for the first time in 1999. The trophy, in its second iteration, remains the property of the supporters groups but now is regarded as a legitimate major honor by the league and its clubs.
McCarty is energized by the thought of Red Bulls fans basking in the unique glow of a trophy created by and for their peers.
“It would be fair to say that we’ve been kind of the laughing stock of opposing fan bases because of our inability to win big games,” he said. “For me especially, knowing I’ve been here a while now, I have a pretty good connection with the fans and knowing what it would mean to them, and knowing they could take the trophy if they win it and shove it back in opposing fans’ faces, that’s something that motivates us every day.”
Speaking to NBC, Petke said, "I still see the same fans that were out there in '98 when I was a rookie. And I owe them. The organization owes them."
There is the prospect, of course, that a celebration Sunday will be the highlight of the 2013 campaign. Since missing the postseason in 2009, the Red Bulls have bowed out in the quarterfinal round three straight times. Would this season be considered a failure if the club’s first major trophy is followed by another November stumble?
McCarty insisted it wouldn’t. Winning the Shield isn’t just about 2013. It’s about the difference between zero and one. It’s about turning the impossible into the possible, the "never have" into the "been there, done that." It’s about alleviating the pressure produced by 17 years of defeat and creating a new club culture.
“You have to start somewhere,” he said. “You have to start with a winning mentality and that’s the first thing you need if you’re going to be successful. You have to have guys who buy in to what you’re trying to do. In years past, we haven’t had a winning mentality. We haven’t had a cutthroat, do whatever it takes to win mentality. For us, winning the Shield will give us a taste of what it means to see ourselves as a successful team. A taste of what it means to say we accomplished something special as a team.”
And then, with that burden lifted, with that taste of silver in their mouths, they’ll move forward. “We’ll celebrate for a night,” McCarty said. “Then we’ll put it in the cabinet and refocus on the playoffs.”