Dax McCarty just couldn’t help himself.
After scoring a dramatic stoppage-time winner last Saturday against Real Salt Lake, the Red Bulls’ midfielder lost himself in celebration. McCarty took off his shirt and went sprinting toward the South Ward before being mobbed by his jubilant teammates. He had just picked up a yellow card for excessive celebration, but it was worth it. After all, the Red Bulls had just come back to stun the league leaders with two goals in the final five minutes of the match -- beating RSL, 4-3.
“I never heard Red Bull Arena that loud before,” McCarty said after the match. “It was unbelievable, what a great feeling … [a game like this] only happens once every couple of years in MLS.
Ironically, the game-winning goal was scored with McCarty disobeying instructions from his head coach. He said that Mike Petke had told him to stay back and protect the point, instead of risk a goal going the other way on the counterattack. Instead of playing back, McCarty decided to dart into the penalty box and was in perfect position to head home an inch-perfect cross from Brandon Barklage into the back of the net, sending the stadium into delirium.
“Mike’s probably really happy with me right now, but I don’t think he [was] too happy when I was running into the box,” the former US international said. “He said ‘Listen, I know we’re at home, but sit in front of the back four, we can’t give up another goal’ … I saw Eric Alexander sitting back a little bit when the ball was kind of getting worked out wide, I thought, ‘I’ll give it a go.’"
For Petke, the hope is that McCarty rediscovers the form the central mid had in 2012 when he was proven to be MLS’s most efficient passer. After being rewarded with a new contract in the offseason, the 26-year-old’s performances in 2013 have dipped slightly due to recovery from a quad injury. But the head coach says he can see signs of the old Dax coming slowly.
“I think Dax is still coming back,” Petke said in his post-match press conference. “I think we had a couple of conversations over the last couple of weeks. He’s not satisfied exactly where he’s at; neither am I because I expect so much from him. Having said that, he’s not playing terrible. I think once Dax embraces exactly what I want from him and can put that in week in, week out, that’s when you might see him getting to the next level because we have high hopes for Dax.”
That bit of tough love has been appreciated by McCarty. He says he appreciates Petke’s frankness and candor and believes it’ll be the boost he needs to get back to his absolute best.
“Mike’s given me a lot of confidence,” McCarty said. “He knows that I’ve been struggling a little bit mentally because I expect myself to be at a very high standard every single game. He just wants me to stay positive. He knows that I’ll get back to the player that I can be. I just have to take it step by step, it’s not perfect.”
For now, McCarty said he was just going to savor scoring the game winner and more importantly, feel good about getting a vital three points against one of MLS’s traditional powers.
“This result can do a lot for our team,” he said. “This can define a season. With this resilience, this character that we have, we came back against the best team in the league from a goal down with seven, eight minutes to play. It’s a result that can kind of galvanize you and a result that you really realize that we can do special things this year.”
The Red Bulls learned Tuesday that they’ll be without Tim Cahill for three to four weeks after the Australian international had his PCL injured by a reckless challenge from Real Salt Lake’s Yordany Alvarez.
Despite suffering the injury, Cahill went on to play for most of the match and even scored the game-opening goal. The midfielder said no injury was going to stop him from playing a part in last Saturday’s game.
“Honestly, I don't even know how I got up. But you know, adrenaline rushes through your body,” he said. “Such a big game, so much importance and it happens.”
With the loss of Cahill and the release of Juninho, New York will be lacking in center midfield depth. An option Petke is to move Eric Alexander, a natural center mid, into the middle of the field and use Lloyd Sam as the Red Bulls’ starting right winger.
UP NEXT: SPORTING KANSAS CITY
New York heads back on the road this Saturday with an opportunity to take first place in the Eastern Conference when they visit Sporting Kansas City.
A win over Sporting would vault New York into sole possession of first in the East. Despite the team’s inconsistent road play, the Red Bulls are confident that they can get a result.
“We know we’re playing well,” Thierry Henry said. “No disrespect to Toronto, but it’s a place you expect us to win and we didn’t. It’s another tough opponent, especially at their place. They don’t concede a lot of goals and they can hurt you at any time. We’re going to have to play well.”
McCarty says he hopes to ride the momentum from the victory over Real Salt Lake and use it as a springboard in the match against Sporting, but he knows the Red Bulls have their work cut out for them.
“Going on the road in this league is not easy,” he said. “Teams really try to take the upper hand and give it to you on the road and sometimes you have to play a little more defensive. For us, it’s trying to find the right balance on how we replicate our home form, but also making sure that we’re solid. [Kansas City] is one of the best teams in the East and has been for a long time now. It’s another big game for us.”