PORTLAND, Ore. – “We’re going to have to defend like bastards.”
Dax McCarty has just summed up the mindset of the new New York Red Bulls heading into Sunday’s game at Portland (7:30 pm ET; ESPN2, ESPN Deportes in the US; TSN2 in Canada, live chat on MLSsoccer.com). More broadly, he’s talking about the mindset of the team heading into the 2013 season.
New York, he says, have to be tough. They have to win their physical battles. They have to compete for 90 minutes. They have to excise the mistakes – little and large – that have plagued them in big games since, well, since forever.
“To be successful, you need that blend of super talent and hard-working guys who are talented – not taking talent away from them – but know the league and are willing to do the dirty work,” said head coach Mike Petke. “I think that’s very important in this league.”
McCarty has become the embodiment of that ethos in his year-and-a-half with the Red Bulls. He came into the league as a brash teenager who fancied himself an attacking force, but ended last season as perhaps the league’s best defensive midfielder. And now, at 25 and a veteran of eight seasons, he’s starting to think in terms of years rather than days, weeks or even months.
“When you’re young, you don’t really think about the logistics of what it means to win in MLS,” McCarty explained. “You’re just kind of happy to be there, happy to be doing what you love and getting paid for it. But I think I’ve realized as I’ve played more years in this league and I’ve gotten a little older – I still like to think I’m relatively young – it’s amazing how your mindset shifts.
“For me, it’s about winning. And realizing that, in order to be successful you need to have a team that’s together and understands the ins and outs of MLS.”
There’s ample evidence for him to cite.
“Look at the teams that are successful – the LAs, the Houstons, the Salt Lakes. They’ve been able to keep that core group of guys together.”
Keeping the group together has never been a particular strength of the New York franchise. McCarty, who arrived in June of 2011, is the third-longest tenured player on the team. Roy Miller and Thierry Henry, who arrived in 2010, are Nos. 1 and 2. More than half the squad wasn’t with the team at this point last year.
McCarty rattled those stats off without looking at the roster, then shook his head: “It’s kind of amazing.”
It’s also probably the biggest part of the challenge for Petke, who’s in it to build for the long haul.
“I know what success is to me,” Petke said. “First and foremost is changing the culture, changing the identity, putting this club in the right direction – on a path we can stick with, whether I’m here or not. If it’s a good enough gameplan, the path is gonna be laid.”