Emotions to Run High as McCarty Returns

The conversation took place two days prior to Luis Robles’ 147th consecutive game played, extending his all-time MLS ironman streak.

Having watched the first four Red Bulls‘ games of 2017 be played before a national television audience, and having missed MSG’s first broadcast of the season due to an NHL conflict; I was playing catch up preparing for my first game call of the Major League Soccer season, and Robles is usually a good first interview on the subject of anything Red Bull. I asked him to point to the biggest difference between last year’s team, and this year’s squad.

“Everyone wants to point to the departure of Dax McCarty,” said the keeper who hasn’t missed a match since joining New York in the midst of the 2010 season. “That’s understandable, but as it relates to us, it magnifies the importance of our young players. Their mindset should be to have a major role in shaping the team immediately. Their time is now.”

Six months removed from the two-leg playoff disappointment at the hands of the Montreal Impact in 2016, Robles is part of a leadership core that wants results now. In collecting his 51st shutout in all competitions donning a Red Bulls’ uniform in Saturday’s 2-0 victory over Columbus Crew SC, Robles was part of a team effort that included five Red Bulls’ homegrown players making appearances in the same game for the first time in franchise history.

18-year-old Tyler Adams started the match alongside Connor Lade, and Alex Muyl, while Derrick Etienne Jr. and Sean Davis were utilized off the bench. Along with FC Dallas and LA Galaxy, Red Bull New York is clearly in the upper stratosphere of MLS teams boasting Academy success in the United States. Internally, they feel they’ve set the standard of excellence in that department. When the Academy and the USL team (Red Bulls II won its league championship in 2016) teach the same values and play the same system, the transition to the first team is smoother.

Which leads us to Saturday night, the Chicago Fire, and the biggest April regular season game the team has played in recent memory.

Emotions will run high at Red Bull Arena (7 pm, MSG Network) when McCarty returns to New Jersey wearing a Chicago uniform. New York’s former captain says he considered stepping away from the game temporarily after the offseason trade to the Fire.

Apr 8, 2017; Chicago, IL, USA; Chicago Fire midfielder Dax McCarty (6) during the first half against the Columbus Crew at Toyota Park. Mandatory Credit: Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

He did not.

Saturday he returns as part of the most efficient central midfield in MLS, playing alongside Brazilian Juninho and former German World Cup Champion Bastian Schweinsteiger. The game will have a big time feel to it and that’s when McCarty is at his best (see 7-0 last year in the Bronx). Sitting alongside Shep Messing, broadcasting games on MSG Networks since 2002, I’ve twice heard him ask the rhetorical question “Who do you want next to you more in an alley fight?” The first time was a reference to Tim Cahill. The second was to McCarty.

At some point during the Red Bulls’ quest to complete a perfect homestand Saturday night, McCarty will come face to face with his Harrison replacement. It’s not the man we expected to have the job. 24-year-old Sean Davis, four-year Duke midfielder, was the heir apparent to assume McCarty’s midfield role until the teenage Adams emerged as the best option.

Mar 25, 2017; Harrison, NJ, USA; New York Red Bulls midfielder Tyler Adams (4) in action against the Real Salt Lake during the first half at Red Bull Arena. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Head coach Jesse Marsch allowed me a look at his GPS numbers for recent games and they are off the charts impressive. Adams consistently leads the team in the category ‘in game sprints’ and the second-place player is not even close. In consecutive wins leading up to Saturday, he bottled up Luciano Acosta and kept the red-hot Federico Higuain off the scoresheet.

Adams is a shoe-in to be named to the United States’ roster for the upcoming Under-20 World Cup, and Saturday might be his last MLS game before departing for training camp under the direction of former Metrostar Tab Ramos, in preparation for the tournament that begins May 20 in South Korea.

You’re tempted to label Saturday’s showdown as the ‘Old Guard vs. The New,’ but it doesn’t seem right. McCarty still looks to be in the prime of his career even at age 30, and I’m still not convinced he’s given up hope of playing a role for the U.S. National Team in 2018 World Cup qualifying. This will be personal for him, and his primary responsibility Saturday may be containing gifted playmaker and ex-teammate Sacha Kljestan.

Fans in the South Ward will surely display their appreciation of McCarty’s time in New York prior to first kick. Within minutes they’ll be rooting for his team to lose. That’s sports. Not since one-time Mexican legend Blanco took his villain act to New Jersey years ago has a New York-Chicago MLS match had this much spice.

We’ve got the Game of the Week Saturday on MSG Network.