NASHVILLE — Last fall, as the curtain fell on his 11th pro season, Dax McCarty took comfort in his place in the soccer world.
He had come to terms with the fact that his U.S. national team career, what there was of it, wasn’t going anywhere. He would pour all efforts into MLS causes, strengthening his bond with the New York Red Bulls after 5 1/2 years and continue chasing an elusive league trophy.
The winter break would allow him to recharge and, with a wedding date approaching, take his mind off a sport that had fueled him since childhood in central Florida.
“It’s funny,” he said Thursday, “how things can change so quickly.”
Within a few months, McCarty was traded to the Chicago Fire, his fourth club in six-plus years. Jurgen Klinsmann’s dismissal as U.S. coach would open the door to a fresh opportunity under Bruce Arena — although he’d have to ask permission to report to training camp late because of the January nuptials.
And after years of sitting on the periphery of the national team, pigeonholed as a solid MLS player whose game didn’t translate to the rigors of international soccer, McCarty began climbing the depth chart and positioning himself for a spot on the 2018 World Cup squad (assuming the U.S. team qualifies this fall).
His next testing ground is the CONCACAF Gold Cup, which commences this weekend with 12 nations vying for a regional championship unrelated to World Cup efforts. With many U.S. regulars absent, McCarty and several others aching for opportunity will aim to prove their value ahead of the last four qualifiers and perhaps the big tournament next summer in Russia.
The Americans will open group play here Saturday against Panama at Nissan Stadium. Anything short of a place in the July 26 final in Santa Clara, Calif., will not sit well with a program that, since Arena began his second tenure in December, has revived its World Cup chances and posted a 4-0-4 record overall.
For McCarty, 30, the timing of the Gold Cup and his national team renaissance couldn’t have been better. He’s in terrific form with Chicago, MLS’s surprise front-runner at the season’s midway point.
Arena, an unabashed fan of McCarty’s for years, is using the Gold Cup to test players on the second layer of the talent pool and, subsequently, begin narrowing the list for World Cup consideration.
“This has been his goal for a while now,” U.S. teammate Graham Zusi said. “He’s been pushing at his club and now he’s getting that reward. What we’re seeing is a guy who isn’t satisfied with just the call-up.”
McCarty’s ascension is similar to Kyle Beckerman’s four years ago: longtime MLS defensive midfielders past their 30th birthdays angling for their first World Cup squad many years after making their U.S. debuts. (McCarty’s was in 2009.) While Beckerman was always in the mix with Klinsmann during the last World Cup cycle, McCarty benefited from the recent coaching change.
Between 2011 and ’16, despite a strong MLS portfolio, McCarty appeared in one U.S. match (under Klinsmann’s predecessor, Bob Bradley).
“I figured the World Cup was a stretch, but I would maybe put into Jurgen’s mind that I’ll be around for the next cycle,” he said. “So when I wasn’t getting called in, there was a level of frustration, but there was also a level of acceptance because you do all you can at the club level and just want to continue to prove over and over again that you can play at the highest level.”
McCarty wrestled with the idea of emailing or calling Klinsmann to ask what else he needed to do to garner another call-up. He decided against it.
“If my play isn’t enough,” he said, “maybe nothing will be enough.”
McCarty also thought about venting publicly, as Sporting Kansas City’s Benny Feilhaber did.
“Sometimes I would watch games and say, ‘Man, I can be a part of this,’ And I want to shout it from the top of the Empire State Building. I’m outspoken but try to do it with respect. It’s a delicate balance between having yourself heard and not looking like an [expletive].”
Reflecting on the lack of opportunity under Klinsmann, McCarty said he isn’t bitter.
“I felt like I deserved more of a chance than I had got, but this is how sports work. Some coaches just have preferences for other guys. That’s how it goes. There’s no secret formula where a coach plugs information into a computer and spits out a name. Maybe Jurgen thinks I’m a really good player, and maybe Jurgen thinks I’m a great player in MLS but just doesn’t see it translate to another level.”
Arena did envision McCarty contributing at another level, though behind captain Michael Bradley and others in a deep midfield corps.
“In MLS, I’ve always tried to get him in trades,” said Arena, who guided the Los Angeles Galaxy from 2008 until last fall. “I was never successful at it. He’s a good team player, a good experienced player at this point in his career.”
Arena summoned McCarty to the annual winter camp featuring MLS players on break. One problem: He was getting married soon.
“You are a guy I want to look at it,” Arena told him.
“As long as you are flexible with my wedding,” McCarty said.
“Take all the time you need,” Arena replied. “If you’re lucky, you’ll only get married once.”
McCarty missed four or five training sessions in Carson, Calif. At first, he was awful. Physically, he was rusty. Mentally, he was out of sorts after learning he’d been traded.
Red Bulls Coach Jesse Marsch told him about the swap in person at the U.S. team hotel. The conversation, McCarty said, said lasted an hour but didn’t satisfy him.
“I got a few things off my chest; he listened,” McCarty said. “It was tough. In my heart, when it happened, I always knew the reason why, but I never heard it. He said they turned down offers a few times, but Chicago kept improving it to the point where they had to say yes. I always knew it had to do with salary issues and getting younger players on the field. I just wanted to hear it from him.”
Despite his productive play, McCarty has moved around the league a lot. After reaching the 2010 MLS Cup final, FC Dallas didn’t protect him ahead of the expansion draft. Portland claimed him, then dealt him to D.C. United.
His term in Washington lasted only a few months. Burdened by the captain’s role at age 23 and thrust into an uncomfortable midfield position (attacking instead of defensive), he admitted that “I wasn’t very good.”
In a blockbuster trade, United sent him to the Red Bulls for Dwayne De Rosario, who proceeded to win 2011 MLS MVP honors. McCarty became the heart and soul of the Red Bulls, the captain, and gained the nickname “Ginger Ninja” for his light red hair and tenacious work.
All seemed well in New York until the trade.
“It took a while,” he said, “but I’ve moved on.” And with the Fire, he’s part of a rebuilt team that has rebounded from years of neglect to forge an 11-game unbeaten streak and 11-3-5 record.
His performance with Chicago strengthened his case for inclusion on the U.S. squad at two World Cup qualifiers in March and the Gold Cup.
“I never gave up hope,” McCarty said. “Even though I was getting older, I never told myself I had no chance. I have continually added things to my game. I always felt, if I just hold out hope, even if it’s 1 or 2 percent, I can show everyone I deserve to be here.”
CONCACAF Gold Cup
Where: 14 U.S. venues.
When: July 7-26.
Defending champion: Mexico.
TV: Fox and Univision outlets.
Group A: Costa Rica, Honduras, Canada, French Guiana.
Group B: United States, Panama, Nicaragua, Martinique.
Group C: Mexico, El Salvador, Jamaica, Curacao.
Saturday: Panama in Nashville, 4:30 p.m. ET (Fox, Univision)
Wednesday: Martinique in Tampa, 9 (FS1, UniMas)
Next Saturday: Nicaragua in Cleveland, 7 (FXX, Univision)
July 19: quarterfinal in Philadelphia*
July 22: semifinal in Arlington, Tex.*
July 26: final in Santa Clara, Calif.*
*if the Americans advance
Goalkeepers: Brad Guzan (Atlanta United), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Sean Johnson (New York City FC).
Defenders: Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest), Matt Miazga (Chelsea), Justin Morrow (Toronto FC), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City).
Midfielders: Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Tijuana), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Joe Corona (Tijuana), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders FC), Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution), Gyasi Zardes (L.A. Galaxy).
Forwards: Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Dom Dwyer (Sporting Kansas City), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders).