Healing Dax McCarty chips in with big game to inspire New York Red Bulls' shorthanded comeback

HARRISON, N.J. – Busted back. Battered kneecap. It hasn’t been the easiest year for Dax McCarty.

A variety of frustrating and niggling injuries in 2014 have kept McCarty from replicating the type of consistent, high-level performances that made him such a beloved figure for the Red Bulls in recent seasons. Through it all, the veteran midfielder valiantly played through the throbbing pain without complaint, though he had become a target of criticism for his inability to reproduce the form that earned him a United States national team call-up in January.

But that mounting scrutiny hasn't fazed the confident and competitive McCarty, who is inching closer to full health and enjoyed arguably his best outing of the season in Saturday’s come-from-behind victory against the New England Revolution. The 27-year-old veteran not only inspired the Red Bulls’ rally by scoring a wonder-goal that teammate Thierry Henry said might be the best of the season, but McCarty also put in the type of sharp defensive shift that helped his club make up for their man disadvantage and silenced even his noisiest detractors.

“I let the guys in the locker room and my coaches affect me. I don’t let anything on the outside affect me,” said McCarty, scoffing at the notion of being weighed down by outsiders' expectations. “I don’t listen to criticism. It doesn’t matter. Obviously, the fans are very important. Media, not important at all. But as long as my coaches and my teammates recognize the work that each other do, than that’s all I care about.

“Now, that being said, have I been my best this year? No. There’s no reason for it. I haven’t felt completely fit the whole season and that’s not an excuse, but I need to get back to full fitness in order for me to do the things that make me successful.”

As excellent as McCarty looked, he admitted he woke up Saturday feeling a bit under the weather, but pushed through to help the erratic Red Bulls as they attempted to pick up three much-needed points against a fellow Eastern Conference side.

After a typically listless first half from New York, McCarty came through in a big way shortly after halftime. He received a pass from substitute Eric Alexander in a crowded area a few yards shy of the 18-yard box, took a great first touch into space to his right and floated a ball over a helpless Bobby Shuttleworth.

Finesse over force, with the end result a gorgeous strike that jump started the comeback.

“Good thing he figured out he can’t shoot from distance so he might as well chip because there was that shot in the first half that ended in section 200,” joked goalkeeper Luis Robles. “His performance tonight was massive for us, and if he continues to play like that for the rest of the season, the guys are going to rally around that."

Defensively, McCarty was a safety blanket in front of a handicapped backline, his range and toughness helping make up for the loss of Matt Miazga while his range of passing and calm demeanor on the ball sparked the Red Bulls' attack.

Now it's just a matter of getting the body to cooperate down the stretch while logging more performances along those lines.

“The knee is finally starting to feel better. It’s been aching for the past couple of weeks, that’s just how it is,” said McCarty. “But the good thing is, it’s strong, my quad is strong, my back is feeling great, my legs are finally starting to get to the point where I can contribute to the team [in the way] I know I can and that I should.

“If I’m not playing up to my best, which I haven’t been this year, I know that we’re going to struggle. It’s very important to me that I play well. I’m my own hardest critic. Whatever [media members] write or what the fans write, it will never compare to the pressure I put on myself. I’m glad people expect a high level out of me and the whole team. We’re New York Red Bulls and won the Supporters’ Shield last year and it’s not good enough what we’ve been doing this year.”

Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com