BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. – Dax McCarty knows this weekend is going to be an odd blend of emotions, seeing all the familiar faces and walking familiar halls at Red Bull Arena, but ending up in a different locker room with his name across a different-colored shirt.
When the Chicago Fire acquired the New York Red Bulls captain in January, it came as a shock across the league. McCarty spent six seasons with the Red Bulls, making 169 regular season and 17 postseason appearances, winning two Supporters’ Shields and captaining some of the club's finest years.
“Going back it’s always going to be strange because, going into the away locker room you know, I haven’t done that in probably seven, eight years,” McCarty said on Tuesday. “Going in there, not going in the home locker room and all that good stuff. All the people you see around the stadium that you know, the security guards and the chefs and the maintenance crew and all that stuff, it’ll be cool. It’ll be cool to see everyone.
“Definitely be a little strange but I think for me the most important part is just trying to soak in the atmosphere and just trying to win, that’s the main point here. It’s a game against a really good team, a rival of us in the East, it’s a six-point game on the road.”
In a message posted on Twitter after the trade, McCarty said he himself was “blindsided” by the move. While McCarty said he expects it all to be slightly surreal on Saturday (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE), he said he’s looking forward to his return, especially after leaving so abruptly.
“I’m going to try to enjoy it,” McCarty said. “Obviously the 90 minutes on the field are going to important and we’re going to try to win, but I’ll to try to enjoy everything before that.
“I don’t think I got a chance to say a proper goodbye to a lot of the guys on the team and I don’t think I got a chance to say a proper goodbye and thank you to the fans for the way that they treated me when I was in New York. So I’ll soak in the environment, I’ll soak in the moment, hopefully I don’t get too many boos, but we will certainly enjoy the moment. Whether we win, lose or draw, I want to take the time after the game to let the Red Bull fans know how much they meant to me in my time there. I’ll make sure I try to go around the stadium and whatever few fans stick around after the game I’ll wave and say thank you for supporting me during my time there.”
On Tuesday, McCarty said he was trying to make the week leading up to the match feel as normal as possible and keep his same routines.
“I’m sure as it goes later into the week it’ll start to be more real and obviously probably be a little more emotional,” McCarty said. “I try to stay calm. I’ve been through it before; I’ve been traded before. Obviously I’d say the Red Bulls meant more to me than any other team I’ve been on so far, so in that sense it’ll probably be a little different.
“...I just want to make sure that the game, it doesn’t become too big about my return. I just want it to be another game. I don’t want our team to feel more pressure, or less pressure, I just want it to be another game.”
Helping McCarty focus on just the match itself is the fact that it comes at an important time for his new club. The Fire have started the season much improved from last season’s last-place finish. Chicago sit fifth in the East, two points behind the Red Bulls, and have a game in hand, but have yet to pick up a win on the road (0-2-1 away from Toyota Park), while the Red Bulls are unbeaten at home (3-0-1 at RBA).
“We haven’t been very good on the road this year, so there’s nothing like going into a really good team’s home and getting your first win of the year,” McCarty said. “That’s kind of how I’m trying to look at it and the way I’m trying to talk to the guys about it is, ‘Hey, if we’re going to be successful this year we can’t just be good at home, we’ve got to win on the road too.’ What a better environment, what a better game to get that first [road] win, try to be good and try to make sure that we leave Red Bull Arena with something.”
Having a player like McCarty, who was so integral to the Red Bulls’ signature high-pressing system in the past, might seem like an advantage, but both McCarty and Fire head coach Veljko Paunovic downplayed that factor.
“I’ll be able to tell the guys a little about each guy they’re playing against, maybe the one-on-one battles … there are little things here are there I’ll try to help out with but once the whistle blows all that goes out the window and you’ve just got to step out on the field and try to win the battle against your guy on the day.”
The return also comes at an interesting personal time for McCarty, as the day after the match is his 30th birthday.
“Just really strange, really strange how the universe works in those types of ways,” McCarty said. “I know for a fact that I’ll try to enjoy it and I’ll try to make sure that I don’t let it get too emotional. I mean try to stay even, try to keep a level head, there’ll be a lot of emotions in the game, especially playing against those guys in the locker room, they’re some of my best friends, I still keep in touch with all of them. It’ll be funny seeing them on the other side of the field, for sure, because those are guys I went to battle with for a long time and those are guys I’ll probably be friends for life with some of them.
"So certainly seeing them on the other side it’ll be weird, but it’s going to be an enjoyable moment and once the 90 minutes hits and once we step on the field it’s going to be a dogfight.”