It’s going to be awkward, Dax McCarty admits, when he arrives at Red Bull Arena on Saturday evening and sees his former D.C. United teammates for the first time since clearing out his locker at RFK Stadium less than two weeks ago.
“Weird, for sure,” he said.
He’ll shake hands and offer hugs, trade sarcastic barbs with close friend Chris Pontius and share stories of his abrupt relocation. And then the 24-year-old midfielder, who was named United’s captain before the opener and entrusted with orchestrating the attack, will try to punish a team that, just three months into his first campaign in Washington, dealt him to the New York Red Bulls for Dwayne De Rosario.
McCarty isn’t bitter about the trade, and in fact was introspective during an interview this week.
“I’m not going to be asked to be as much of a leader. There are a lot of older guys here, and in D.C., I was one of the more veteran guys,” he said. “I wanted the responsibility [with United] but maybe wasn’t ready for it. I tried to do too much, put a lot of pressure on myself, and I don’t think I played my best, which is too bad because I loved the team and the organization.
“Maybe it just wasn’t a good fit, and maybe it’s a better fit in New York.”
Two matches into his spell with the Red Bulls (6-3-10), McCarty seems more comfortable in a supporting role. In Wednesday’s 5-0 victory over visiting Toronto, he effectively distributed the ball from a deep central position and exhibited the form that helped propel FC Dallas to an MLS Cup appearance last fall.
“The expectations here, he had a little too much on his plate and he tried to do too much,” Pontius said. With New York, “he’s been given much more of a free role to do his thing.”
The trade has also paid off for United (4-5-7). In his debut last Saturday, De Rosario assisted on Josh Wolff’s goal during a 2-2 draw with the Philadelphia Union and, with a strong presence in attacking midfield, diversified United’s attack.
In essence, the deal was consummated because neither player fit perfectly into the previous system: The blue-collar McCarty had been asked to become an influential attacker, while De Rosario, acquired by New York from Toronto FC in April, occupied space that French star Thierry Henry required to operate as a withdrawn forward.
With the Red Bulls, McCarty has partnered with Finnish midfielder Teemu Tainio in deeper positions and yielded roaming rights to Henry. With United, De Rosario is the fulcrum of an attack that lacked a true playmaker.
“Dax is a good soccer player, and if they are going to have the ball that much, he’s going to be a good fit for them,” Coach Ben Olsen said.
Last fall, after serving as United’s interim head coach, Olsen encouraged the front office to pursue McCarty, a player with many of the same qualities that Olsen possessed during his distinguished career: tenacity, inspiration and courage.
Olsen, however, couldn’t turn McCarty into something he wasn’t: a primary attacker. Although United has been much better with the ball this year — it needed just 15 games to match last season’s MLS record-low total of 21 goals — the absence of a forceful central midfielder hindered the larger aim.
“My role in New York is going to be two-way [defense and attack] but I won’t be relied upon to create as many opportunities,” McCarty said. “I’m a guy who likes to be more defensive and link up with the attack. I have the freedom to move around, but I’ll be more disciplined.”
McCarty’s personality and convictions provided leadership for United, but with him gone, Wolff, 34, and De Rosario, 33, will guide a lineup that has leaned on four rookies, plus 20-year-old goalkeeper Bill Hamid and 18-year-old wing Andy Najar.
United will need to show maturity Saturday after a pair of deflating draws at RFK Stadium. In both matches, United yielded a late equalizer and dropped valuable points. In the past five games, D.C. has recorded four ties and a loss.
The Red Bulls (5-1-3 at home) are atop the Eastern Conference (a point ahead of Philadelphia and Columbus) and lead the league in scoring with 34 goals.
Henry’s nine goals are best in MLS and Luke Rodgers has scored six. Juan Agudelo, 18, an emerging U.S. national team forward, has added four goals, despite serving in a reserve role most of the season.
In the first meeting with United, Henry struck twice as New York stormed to a 4-0 victory April 21 in Washington.
“We are a much better team now,” Olsen said. “We understand ourselves and how we approach games. Hopefully, that will be enough to get some points.”