Pride on the Hudson: Captain Dax McCarty embraces new role as leader of New York Red Bulls locker room

HANOVER, N.J. – Sure, Dax McCarty has been in the spotlight for a long time. But just five years ago, despite an emerging US national-team career, McCarty was a bit of an afterthought in MLS.

The versatile midfielder was left unprotected by FC Dallas in the 2010 Expansion Draft – on the heels of helping them reach the MLS Cup final in his fourth season in Frisco, Texas. He was snatched up by the Portland Timbers and quickly sent to D.C. United in exchange for Rodney Wallace before he could even pack his bags for the Rose City.

His time in the nation’s capital lasted only a bit longer. Despite being handed the captain’s armband upon his arrival, McCarty was shipped to the New York Red Bulls that summer to play alongside legends like Thierry Henry and Rafa Marquez in a trade that left many scratching their heads. Headed the other way was Canadian international Dwayne De Rosario, leaving the faithful at Red Bull Arena to wonder just who this floppy-haired ginger from Orlando was.

Those questions have been thoroughly answered.

McCarty is now the second-longest tenured player on the Red Bulls' roster, the heart of one of the league's best midfields, and – once again – the man with the captain's armband. Considered to be among the MLS elite at his position and still just 28 years old, McCarty is now one of the faces of the franchise and a leading figure within the Red Bulls locker room.

“It didn’t work out in D.C.,” McCarty says. “I wasn’t bitter about it; I was actually somewhat flattered that New York would think that highly of me to trade me for a player as accomplished as Dwayne De Roasrio.”

A legend in his own right, De Rosario actually went on to win the MLS Most Valuable Player award in 2011, even though D.C. United failed to make the playoffs. It only added to the seemingly lopsided nature of the trade.

“That was an interesting transition,” McCarty said with wry smile. “He went on to win the league MVP, which I was kind of laughing about. But he deserved it; it was a fantastic season for him. The way I looked at it was, ‘I’ll let him win the league MVP, as long as we make the playoffs and we can go on and try to win an MLS Cup.’”

McCarty's new team did end up qualifying for the postseason and got past the Knockout Round, but they were bounced in the Western Conference semifinals at the hands of the eventual champions, LA Galaxy. For the Red Bulls, simply making the playoffs wasn’t good enough.

In New York, the mantra is often “what have you done for me lately?” And lately, at the time, the team had just parted ways with one of the league’s best players for a young midfielder with talent, but no clear position and a nebulous role. That, of course, didn’t sit too well with some of the Red Bulls faithful.

“I enjoyed the challenge,” McCarty says. “I think in New York, the fan base and the sporting landscape and the sporting culture is unique because the fans expect perfection. They expect success right away. It’s been a fun ride. For the most part, I always had confidence in myself that I was going to come and be an important part of this team. That’s something I always challenge myself to do every single year.”

That confidence was vital, as thick skin is a necessary attribute that any professional athlete needs in his locker to survive, and thrive, in the Big Apple. Now thoroughly ensconsced as a defensive midfielder for the new-look Red Bulls, “the ginger ninja” has become an invaluable piece of the greater puzzle.

Since arriving midway through the 2011 season, McCarty has made 118 appearances, tallied 15 assists and 10 goals. While playoff success has been elusive, McCarty was crucial in leading the Red Bulls to the 2013 Supporters’ Shield championship and to the Eastern Conference final last season, topping rival D.C. United along the way.

But it’s not the statsheet that defines McCarty’s importance to the Red Bulls.

While enduring three coaching changes, multiple positional switches and countless central midfield partners, McCarty has been a stabilizing force within the organization both on and off the field, proving his worth to his teammates, organization and fans, time and time again.

“Dax, having more tenure than me, carries a little more weight on his shoulders understanding that this franchise has suffered for a long time," said goalkeeper Luis Robles, who in 2012 joined McCarty on the Red Bulls. "Not only does he embody the fighting spirit that this organization and the fans want to represent, but he also understands some of the suffering as well.”

“It wasn’t a surprise that they’re hard on people,” McCarty says of the fans. “One of the greatest players to ever play this game, Thierry Henry, had a tough time with the fans at first, and they were giving him some grief. So I took it in stride; I took it as a challenge.”

Suffice it to say the supporters in the South Ward, along with the rest of Red Bull Arena, have taken a great deal of pride in calling McCarty one of their own over the years.

“The more time that I played and the more fans got to know me and got to know the type of player I am and what I brought to the team, hopefully they’re proud of the player I am,” McCarty offered. “I wear the jersey and the badge with a lot of pride, and I hope that they respect that. I’ve come a long way. It’s hard to put into words how much happiness it brings me to be able to represent the team as a captain. I wear it with a lot of pride, and my goal is to try to repay the organization and the fan base with trophies.”

Enter the newest challenge facing McCarty and the Red Bulls: competition for the very attention of New York metropolitan-area fans with the arrival of New York City FC. That competition comes to the playing field for the first time on Sunday at Red Bull Arena (7pm ET; FOX Sports 1, FOX Deportes in US, TSN2 in Canada).

After an offseason in which the Red Bulls made changes in their front office and on their technical staff, firing beloved head coach Mike Petke and parting ways with the face of the franchise on the field, Henry and fellow Designated Player Tim Cahill, the region's MLS spotlight shifted to a different kind of story.

Just as the superstar era in Harrison was coming to an end, their Bronx-based counterparts entered the league with glitz and flare, flaunting big-name signings like David Villa, Frank Lampard and Mix Diskerud.

“In a game like this, he means everything," head coach Jesse Marsch said of his captain. "He’s the guy that understands what this club’s about and what this derby will mean in the future. Having him on the field, his experience with this club, I expect it to shine brightly on Sunday.”

One of the league's biggest spenders in recent years, now the Red Bulls aren’t the ones with household names. Instead they're filled with lifers like McCarty and Robles.

“It’s obviously a big challenge for guys like us,” McCarty says. “I think we still have a very good team, but maybe we don’t have the big-name recognition that we used to have with the big European stars that have been on our team in the past. But the guys that are seen as leaders on the Red Bulls now, we have to step up every part of our game: on the field, off the field, in the community, in the locker room.”

They may not garner the same attention as their noisy neighbors, but that suits this new-look Red Bulls side just fine. Preferring to let their results do the talking, the Red Bulls can point to their record to justify their style of play, as well as their team-first philosophy.

They’re currently in third place in the East with 13 points from eight games, while NYCFC's expansion season has seen them win just one of their first nine games..

If anything, McCarty said, a new rival has been a motivating factor for the Red Bulls to succeed.

“I don’t think it’s a bad thing; I think it’s a very good thing,” McCarty said of NYCFC’s introduction to the league. “For the fans, I think it’s great. Ultimately, we all want Major League Soccer to do well. We all want Major League Soccer to be successful and, at the end of the day, the bottom line is that more competition is going to bring winners. You want that competition shown on the field. With the passion that their fans have brought and the splash that they’ve made, it’s only a positive for our team and the league.”

Just don’t expect the Red Bulls captain to give NYCFC any quarter for their first of many head-to-head showdowns. After all, there’s more than just three points on the line come Sunday.

“When we step out on the field, we have to expect to go get three points against them,” McCarty says. “We have to prove that we’re still the team to beat in New York. Until they come and earn our respect by beating us and getting three points and consistently beating us, we’re always going to want to be the team to talk about in New York.”