Castillo: Dax McCarty should be the USMNT's breakout star at Gold Cup

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Fans of MLS and speculative fiction, note this nugget, gleaned from US men’s national team training this past week in Nashville:

Once upon a time, back when he led the LA Galaxy, US head coach Bruce Arena tried to acquire Dax McCarty from the New York Red Bulls.

“I think he’s a very good player,” Arena said after a scorching training session at Lipscomb University on Monday. “When I was in MLS I tried to trade for him. I think he’s a good midfield player and a player who can play well at the international level.”

Obviously, that didn’t happen – Arena left to helm the Yanks back in November, and just a couple months later, the Red Bulls sent the beloved McCarty packing to the Chicago Fire, where he continues to thrive at the club level. And now, for country, McCarty faces his biggest stage yet. 

While the hype train might chug along (and deservedly so) for players who recently came out scoring, everyone loves Dax. After a fruitful youth national-team career and some early calls to the USMNT, but years without a look under Jurgen Klinsmann’s tenure, this Gold Cup could be McCarty’s time to shine – and to maybe solidify a World Cup slot.

A satisfying flash of new talent arrived during Saturday’s 2-1 friendly win over Ghana, courtesy of Dom Dwyer’s first-ever goal for the US and Kellyn Acosta’s game-winning free kick. But through it all, McCarty – alongside Acosta, naturally – tore up the midfield in a way that’s both strengthened his fan club and caught the eye of not only his coach, but also his US teammates. 

Castillo: Dax McCarty should be the USMNT's breakout star at Gold Cup -

“We have to have the right blend of some experienced players and some younger players, and I think Dax would fit in that category of an experienced player, despite the fact that he doesn’t have that many international games under his belt,” Arena said. “He commands respect out of his teammates and gets it.”

Seriously: The word at camp is that Dax turned many a head on his outing in Hartford. The praise comes almost unprompted.

“You have,” said Alejandro Bedoya, breaking down the strength of the current roster, “new guys developing through the ranks like Kellyn Acosta, and guys who maybe didn’t have chances before, like Dax.” Both served up standout performances vs. Ghana said Bedoya, a Gold Cup and USMNT veteran. “I thought those two players played very well.”

On the flip side of the experience spectrum, senior-team newcomers like Kelyn Rowe have said that, despite his recent emergence for the national team, they see Dax as a seasoned pro to whom they look for advice. 

“We can sit down and talk with Dax. He’s a guy you can come to at any time,” Rowe said earlier this week. “We had a quick chat about the game and what I can do better, and what he liked about it, and he’s one of those guys that you want to trust. He’s a veteran. He knows what he’s doing here.”

And where’s Dax in all of this? Laying back from the crowds, staying covered in sunscreen and putting in serious work, talking little to media and instead doggedly giving his all to every drill in a sweltering summer. That’s McCarty in a nutshell, a people’s hero who lets the quality of his work speak for itself. And if it continues to do so similar to this past Saturday, we could well see Dax lift his first international trophy by the end of this month. 

The first opportunity, of course, comes this Saturday, July 8, when the US kick off their tournament run vs. Panama at Nissan Stadium (4:30 pm ET | FOX, Univision, UDN in US, TSN2 in Canada). Keep a close eye on the Ginger Ninja