HARRISON, N.J.—With a chance to serve a free kick into the box and potentially break a deadlock, Sacha Kljestan specifically instructed one his teammates to get free because Kljestan would be looking for him.
Instead, it was 5-foot-9 Dax McCarty — and the diminutive midfielder delivered.
The New York Red Bulls defeated the Philadelphia Union, 3-2, in an intense Eastern Conference bout at Red Bull Arena on Saturday night that felt like a playoff game, and it was McCarty who provided the difference in the back-and-forth affair.
Heeding Kljestan’s advice in the 66th minute, McCarty got himself wide open on the decisive set piece. The Red Bulls’ captain started in an offside position on the play to evade Brian Carroll’s mark, got back just onside when the ball was whipped in, and then made a run to the back post to find himself all alone in front of the net.
Free header. Easy goal. Three points. Pure bliss.
“It was a great feeling," McCarty said. ”Obviously I’ve been injured the past couple of months and it’s never a good feeling when you’re out, and to be able to come in and play in a big game like this and help the team win, it’s a good feeling.”
McCarty’s headed finish, and overall impressive performance, not only vaulted the Red Bulls back into first place in the Eastern Conference, but also served as a reminder of what he is capable … just in case anyone had forgotten in his absence.
The 29-year-old midfielder had missed much of the past month-and-a-half of action because of a leg injury, but looked to be one step closer to being at his best Saturday. He broke up several plays against a Union team that was physical and aggressive from the start, and also did some heavy lifting in the attack with twoassists to go along with his game-winning goal.
“When you have a player like Dax who is our captain, our leader, our experienced guy on the field, our linchpin, our anchor, he’s incredibly important,” said Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch. “That helps us ultimately get over the hump and find a way to really push to go after the championship.”
As far as McCarty is concerned, there remains room for improvement. He has started only the last two games for the Red Bulls after playing just nine minutes in the two prior, and is still getting back to his top form.
Saturday showed he's making progress.
“He was excellent,” said Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles. “He unfortunately had a midseason injury that’s kept him out and it’s tough to find your bearings sometimes, but tonight he showed every reason why he’s one of the leaders on this team and why he’s so vital to the success of this team."