Last week, Dax McCarty got called back into the US men's national team. Last weekend, he got married. And on Monday, the longtime New York Red Bulls captain was traded, after five-and-a-half years in Harrison, to the Chicago Fire.
Through three coaches and multiple stylistic iterations, the 29-year-old McCarty had been at the center of of the storm for the best run in RBNY history, the one field player who was a constant for a club that entered this decade defined by constant turnover and have now become known for their ability to string together stellar, consistent regular seasons. They've had a run of five straight years with 50 or more points, and have topped the Eastern Conference in three of the last four outings. New York won the Supporters' Shield in 2013, then did it again in 2015, and those were and are the only significant pieces of hardware in franchise history.
McCarty was there for all of it. You could argue that this golden-ish age for the franchise began with his arrival in mid-2011, with him shielding the backline and shuttling the ball from back to front as efficiently as anyone in the league. He was a Best XI player in 2015, should've been in 2013, and would've had an argument for a spot in 2016 as well if not for an unfortunate mid-summer injury that cost him just about two months of games. That injury seemed to knock the Red Bulls into a stretch in which they routinely conceded multi-goal leads, and left them three points shy of defending their Shield.
It is a tough trade for me to wrap my head around from New York's perspective, especially with their CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals appearance just over a month away, and with chemistry such a crucial part of that particular event. The Red Bulls got a hefty ransom in the General Allocation Money from the Fire – $400K in all, broken down into $200K this year and $200K next year – and freed up a max salary slot, so it's fair they're up to something big.
I'm going to break this down from each team's point of view:
RBNY: Asset depreciation, bet on the kids & The Big Move
McCarty has been a pro for more than a decade, turns 30 this year and is approaching 25,000 total minutes across all competitions. It is entirely possible that 2015 was his apex as a player, and we will see the some sort of fade – maybe slow, maybe fast, maybe somewhere in between – starting as he crests 30. "Better one year too soon than one year too late" is the operating principle here, even if it's galling for RBNY fans who are trying to get over losing their captain.
Besides the cap space and the GAM (and I'll get into who I think they can use that on in a second), there are three other big reasons that New York could make this move:
Davis, Adams and Basuljevic are all RBNY Homegrowns. Davis, who turns 24 next month, took most of those minutes last summer when McCarty was hurt, and looked pretty natural as a partner for Felipe, with Felipe dropping more into McCarty's role as a d-mid and Davis as more of a box-to-box player. That could be the presumptive look for 2017, or the roles could flip since Davis has experience playing as a No. 6.
Adams, at 17, is just a kid. But he's "just a kid" with about 40 games of professional experience – most at the USL level – and is the presumptive starter at d-mid for the US U-20 national team this spring. His upside shouldn't be ignored, and this trade is an example of RBNY not ignoring it.
Basuljevic, since he is unsigned, is the biggest question mark of the three. But he's had a very good three years of college ball with Georgetown, and whispers are that New York are set to sign him as yet another Homegrown player. He would immediately slot into the depth chart there.
So if New York felt comfortable with their Homegrowns, and felt it was likely that McCarty's value was going to depreciate this season, and felt that an open max salary slot and $200k in GAM could get them over the hump in the postseason... you see what their logic is, right?
And there's our segue: It's 100 percent not clear what New York are going to do with their newfound budget flexibility. A like-for-like replacement for McCarty seems unlikely because of the presence of the Homegrowns above, and also because playmakerSacha Kljestan actually spent the prime of his career as a deep-lying No. 8 for Anderlecht, winning titles in Belgium and getting yearly experience playing in the UEFA Champions League. If the kids can't make it work next to Felipe, Sacha can.
Thus, it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that New York are suddenly in the market for a No. 10, even if I find that unlikely. It's also not out of the realm that they want to spend their resources on central defense, since at the moment they're only three deep at that spot (Aurelien Collin, Gideon Baah and Justin Bilyeu), but given that Collin and Baah project as a high quality CB pairing – and one that's already taken a lot of investment – I also find that unlikely. There will be another CB or two in camp for RBNY next week, but it won't be a max salary guy.
That leaves 'keeper (no), winger (they already have five), and... forward. Which may seem odd since Bradley Wright-Phillips just scored 24 goals and has had the best three-year run of any forward in league history, but 1) he's turning 32 in less than two months, and 2) he's come up small in the playoffs for two straight years.
And there's more to it, of course. Namely: head coach Jesse Marsch was very happy to try a 4-2-2-2 at the start of last season, but doesn't quite seem to have the personnel to justify it. Add a DP-caliber forward to the mix, and suddenly the Red Bulls have a new default look.
By the by: Guess who plays a 4-2-2-2 every week in the Bundesliga?
Does this make sense? Some of it doesn't (the roster and formation they had worked just fine the last two years), some of it does. MLS is very much a 4-2-3-1 league at this point, and teams are used to playing against that formation. They've also seen Marsch's version of the RBNY high press for two straight years, which means there's plenty of film to dissect. Nobody in the league, of course, plays a 4-2-2-2 with any regularity.
Everybody else is zigging. I think RBNY want to zag.
This not-entirely-uneducated guess of mine would require them to find the right forward to add to the mix. Apropos of everything, I don't think those Terrence Boyd rumors are quite dead, and they wouldn't need to massage the Allocation Order to get him. New York's big move could be both a formation and a player.
Chicago: The time is now
Things are much simpler for the Fire, who've been hoarding GAM and TAM for most of the last few years and who have desperately wanted a central midfielder or two who could give the team some leadership and definition. They already brought in Juninho a few weeks ago, and now they've added McCarty, and suddenly they have two of the better pieces in the league at that spot.
I'm not, however, sure that they're the perfect fit to play alongside each other. Juninho's best year was 2014, when he played as the No. 6 in LA's "Y" midfield and allowed Marcelo Sarvas to play more advanced as a destroyer/fifth wheel on what is, for my money, the best attacking team in league history. McCarty actually played something close to that Sarvas role back in his FC Dallas days, but those were literally last decade. Trading for a No. 6 to play him as a No. 8 doesn't make that much sense even if you know he's capable of playing the role.
The flipped version is perhaps more workable, provided the Fire make a concerted effort to get more of the ball next year. Remember that when in possession, Juninho is capable of hitting some ridiculous, Pirlo-esque passes:
I'm not sure it'll work perfectly between those two guys, at least not right away. But I do think that, given time, it'll work pretty damn well.
What it means for third-year CM/DM Matt Polster is less clear. Polster has a ton of upside as a No. 6, but mostly seemed to want to be more of a No. 8 last season. Either way, he's suddenly a backup in both of his best spots.
Does that mean a move to right back is in the offing? Polster's played there a bit over his first two seasons and Chicago don't have a defined starter at that position as currently constructed, so it's surely possible. But Polster's potential as a right back is limited, and for a team that's clearly wary of seeing assets depreciate (remember how quickly they cut bait with Harry Shipp once they decided they weren't going to use him?), I have a hard time seeing Chicago take the gamble of shifting his long-term role so drastically.
Polster has real trade value around the league, and while losing a young player would hurt, the Fire have two guys (Cam Lindley and Mauricio Pineda) who are or can play as deep-lying midfielders should the team sign them as Homegrowns. That probably won't happen in 2017, but I think Chicago would just be fine for a year of getting by with McCarty, Juninho and a pair of replacement-level players on the depth chart before bringing the kids online in 2018.
The other big adjustment is this: Chicago have used two of their three DP slots on pure attacking players in David Accam and Nemanja Nikolic. They also have Michael De Leeuw, who's a TAM player, in that rotation, and a couple of veteran, inverted wingers in Arturo Alvarez and John Goossens.
What they don't have is someone to consistently get those guys clear-cut looks at goal. They don't have a DP No. 10 who can tie the whole thing together, and given that all those above attackers I mentioned are in their late 20s and early 30s, nobody should expect any of them to turn into Mauro Diaz before preseason opens.
It seemed unlikely they would sign a playmaker of that ilk when it seemed like the third DP slot was earmarked for a deeper-lying midfielder like Bastian Schweinsteiger or Andres Guardado. But with Juninho and McCarty aboard, you can be pretty certain both those moves are dead. The Fire got a Best XI-caliber d-mid last week, and then they got one this week, and in the process they also got some flexibility with regard to their defined needs as a team. They got freedom to use that last DP slot on anything they want.
(For your convenience, Fire fans, I have sorted Transfermarkt's list of attacking midfielders in the Argentine top flight according to market value. Don't ever say I haven't done anything for you.)
On top of all of that, Chicago aren't even close to done wheeling and dealing. It's estimated that, even after shipping out $400K in GAM for McCarty, they still have something in the ballpark of $600K GAM on hand, as well as $1.5 million worth of TAM. They have been flipping assets and collecting cash for years, and are now in position to bolster pretty much any spot on the field in a "whoa, did they really just sign that guy?" kind of way.
Which is, I'm certain, what they'll do. The Fire are a much better team than they were 24 hours ago, and have the flexibility to become better still in the days, weeks and months to come.