Plenty of tumult unfolded around the New York Red Bulls last winter. You might have heard as much.
It’s not as if the Red Bulls fans hadn’t seen this sort of process before, but never quite to this extent. Never had the club seen a player quite as impactful and larger-than-life than the great Thierry Henry. And for all the illustrious managers that have patrolled the sidelines in their 20-year history, from Queiroz to Milutinović to Bradley to Arena, none had ever ascended to the ranks of club legend as Mike Petke had.
Needless to say, losing both in the same offseason served to shake things up a bit.
Of course, there was the issue of replacing perhaps the most talented player in MLS, which garnered most of the headlines, but Henry's retirement also brought about a vacancy of the captain’s armband. Ever since Juan Pablo Angel’s departure from the club following the 2010 season, the French legend had manned the skipper’s role in all of his four full seasons at the club. After captaining iconic squads like France's Les Bleus and Arsenal in previous years, Henry was the obvious choice to follow up a club hero like Angel.
Enter 2015, and the choice was not quite as obvious. Newly-appointed head coach Jesse Marsch had plenty on his plate after taking the reigns in January, and naming a new captain was just one of many changes he would bring forth.
Without a true star, Marsch experimented with a few candidates during the Red Bulls’ preseason trip to Florida. Veterans like Bradley Wright-Phillips, Luis Robles, Lloyd Sam, and Sacha Kljestan all donned the armband at some point as Marsch looked to identify the club’s next captain. But from the onset, one name admittedly stuck out from the bunch.
“Jesse called me when he got hired and said that he was really looking forward to working with me again,” Dax McCarty said. “We’d worked together a little bit with the national team.”
A former US national team assistant under Bob Bradley, Marsch had always admired McCarty’s game, making him eager to get to work with the “Ginger Ninja” day in and day out.
“I liked how he trained every day, how he pushed every day,” Marsch said. “Sometimes when you have those January camps, a lot of the guys come in very sheepish because it’s their first experience with the national team or they're nervous. Dax didn’t carry any of that. He stepped on the field every training session and every game like a man, and that’s what I like about him.”
Heading into what many considered to be a rebuilding year, Marsch stressed the importance of selecting the right captain to aid in this new project, and exceed expectations. McCarty turned out to be the obvious choice.
“It’s been a really rewarding experience for me to get to know Dax,” Marsch added. “From afar, I always respected and appreciated his game, his competitiveness. And when I came here, he was the first guy that I thought about working with and I was excited to work with.”
With this new relationship comes a learning process, but it was one that came with remarkable swiftness. Looking to get on the same page, Marsch sat down with his soon-to-be skipper to ensure that the arduous journey ahead would be a joint effort.
“We just chatted about his vision for the club and how I work into that,” McCarty told MLSsoccer.com. “He trusted and valued my opinion back then. He told me, ‘Look, this is going to be a feeling-out process. We need to get know each other, have trust in each other. You’re going to be a big player for me.’”
This wasn’t the first time that McCarty had taken up captaincy in MLS. Four years prior, his short stay in the nation’s capital saw him named the leader of a young D.C. United squad. But at just 24 years of age, McCarty admitted that he wasn’t nearly the leader that he is today.
“The toughest transition for me when I was captain in D.C., I think, was focusing too much on the team and what the team could do better rather than focusing on myself and how I’m going to play,” he said. “You have to make sure the team is ready to play, but first and foremost you have to make sure that you’re ready to play yourself. It’s hard to juggle both of those things.”
Now, the captain of a Supporters’ Shield-winning side, it’s easy to see just why Marsch elected to burden McCarty with the task of leading a new era of Red Bulls soccer. Like-minded in more ways than one, Marsch has been rewarded after making such a difficult decision.
“I see some of myself in him,” Marsch admitted. “I think he’s a better player than I was, but his mentality, his competitiveness, the edge he brings to the field, I felt that that was going to be a fun project to try and continue to evolve into a big-time leader. I couldn’t be prouder of how far he’s come this year, how he’s played, how he’s grown as a person and a leader, and to see people acknowledging publicly how great of a player he is.”
McCarty, who has played under three different head coaches in his tenure in New York, admitted that he and Marsch meshed from the get-go, with mentalities that are “innately kind of the same.”
The captaincy hasn’t come without its share of hardships. A poor stretch of form from May to June threatened to derail much of the early good will the new regime had earned. That, McCarty said, is when a captain is needed most.
“[Jesse] taught me that being a captain is not always easy,” he said. “Sometimes your true character shows in the tougher moments rather than in the big moments when you’re winning games. Your real character will shine through when you’re losing or have a bad game, then you have to stand up and take responsibility and show the guys that you’re a good leader by being accountable.”
Without a true “star” in the current setup, McCarty has deflected much of the praise that comes with his lofty title. Whereas the press would flock to the likes of Henry and Tim Cahill for a juicy quote after the game, the attention is far more spread out these days in Harrison. In the same vein, McCarty insists that he is just one of many leaders in the squad.
“I don’t even look at it like I have the armband now,” he said. “I look at it [as if] I have an armband, Sacha has an armband, Luis, Bradley, Lloyd; we have so many different leaders on this team and I think that’s what makes it easier for me and Jesse to have a good relationship. He doesn’t just come to me for decisions, we all do it together as a team and a leadership council.”
There may be many leaders, but there’s only one captain. It may not have been the obvious or simple choice, but McCarty's growth and maturation has been apparent to the players who hold the most clout in the New York locker room.
“He’s stepped into the boots,” Wright-Phillips said. “Being a captain’s a tough job. I think me, at this time in my life being older than Dax; I don’t think I could be a captain. It comes with a lot of responsibility and he’s handled it well. I’m proud of Dax because it’s a tough job, especially when you’re replacing Thierry Henry.”
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Ironman Luis Robles had similar words of praise for his captain.
“I’m so proud of Dax as a teammate, as a friend, as a brother,” the goalkeeper said. “When the season started, we all knew he was capable of leading. But to see the way he’s progressed and really come into the position, everyone that knows him and been a part of the process has been really proud of him. We know that we wouldn’t be the same team without Dax.”
Of all the massive names that have come to define the New York Red Bulls (and MetroStars before them), Dax McCarty might not have been a name that popped off the page. Yet he is undoubtedly ascending to new heights reserved only for the cream of the crop. Once widely thought to be a trade bust, Marsch has helped to mold McCarty not only into a top midfielder, but a top man.
“Eventually, when all is said and done, he’s going to walk away from here having played the most games, having lead the team for longest amount of time, and being a legend,” Marsch added. “I’m happy to have that kind of guy to work with.”