It was a deal that shocked MLS last season.

Dwayne De Rosario, a six-time MLS Best XI would be dealt from the New York Red Bulls to bitter rivals DC United for a diminutive midfielder named Dax McCarty on June 27, 2011. “DeRo” went on to have an MVP season with DC United, while McCarty struggled to find his place in the Red Bulls’ lineup. It looked as if New York was swindled in a lopsided deal, trading the eventual MLS MVP for a journeyman still trying to establish himself in the first 11.

“Obviously in DC, things didn’t end the way I wanted them to,” McCarty said after a June win over his former team. “I wanted to stay there, be successful with them. But at the end of the day in this business, nothing is ever certain.”

Who would have thought one year later the trade would be more even than anyone thought?

On a team loaded with international-caliber players, World Cup winners and multiple-time league champions, the play of McCarty has really stood out this season. The 25-year-old has become an undroppable combative defensive midfielder in starting lineup after a somewhat rocky start to his Red Bulls career.

“I think it’s taken me a little bit more time to settle into New York than it did DeRo [into Washington],” McCarty said.  “I think now I’m starting to find my feet, starting to find my niche and become really comfortable around the guys.”

Fast forward to the Red Bulls’ top-of-the-table clash last Friday against the Dynamo in Houston. With McCarty out due to an accumulation of yellow cards, the team gets overran in midfield, as Tim Cahill and Teemu Tainio are unable to stop Houston’s Brad Davis from cutting New York open time and time again with his pinpoint passes. The result was a 2-0 Houston win and a share of first place, leaving the Red Bulls in third in the Eastern Conference. If you needed any more proof why McCarty is the team’s MVP this season, this is it.

In coach Hans Backe’s standard 4-4-2 formation, McCarty plays the role of the “holding” or defensive midfielder. His job is simple: Win the ball back from the opposing team in midfield, provide protection for the back four against the opposition in the team’s defensive half and get the ball moving up the field in attack. Although he can get forward in attack, McCarty said he’s enjoying being deployed as a midfield sentry.

“I’ve always considered myself a box-to-box guy,” he said. “I have plenty of energy, plenty of drive to get into the box from midfield.  But when we were leaking goals, Hans really wanted to put someone in front of the center backs … a little bit underrated part of my game is my tackling and being able to win the ball back. It’s been a good position for me.”

With a rematch against the Dynamo this Friday, expect Backe to reinsert McCarty into the starting lineup and hope that McCarty can establish midfield supremacy over Houston at home.

Say It Ain’t So, Joel

An eyebrow-raising omission from Friday’s defeat, Joel Lindpere responded to critical comments made by Hans Backe about the Estonian international.

Lindpere had made it known to the media that he preferred to play in center midfield instead out wide on the left. But Backe pulled no punches when asked about the subject.

“He’s more of a wide player who can tuck in in the attacking game,” Backe told Franco Panizo “He’s not a guy who wins 50-50 [balls] and put pressure on midfield. He’s a guy who needs time and space on the ball and then create for crosses and one-twos and things like that.”

And if Lindpere doesn’t like it? Well, Backe has a message for him.

“He has to, otherwise we trade him.”

For the normally mild-mannered Backe to go on the offensive and go after Lindpere was surprising. Lindpere has played in center midfield before and has the characteristics of a good central midfield playmaker. With both Tim Cahill and Teemu Tainio not at full fitness and Dax McCarty out due to suspension, it may have made sense to play Lindpere at center mid.

One wonders if Backe would have taken such a hard line were it not for the development of Connor Lade, who has carved out a role on the left wing. Lindpere can still a valuable asset to the Red Bulls, but this is a storyline that will be closely monitored for the rest of the season.