HANOVER, N.J. – Both sides are doing their best to downplay it. But there's no escaping the huge shadow that the biggest news of the last offseason – the New York Red Bulls trading captain Dax McCarty to the Chicago Fire – is casting on Wednesday night's Knockout Round match.
That's because nine months removed from that deal, the underlying motives that led to the trade are coming to a head in a 90-minute single elimination match (8:30 pm ET | FS1, UniMás w/ SAP; TSN, TVA Sports).
That blockbuster trade helped push the No. 3-seeded Fire into this very position, turning a team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2012 into one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Everything about McCarty, from his ball-winning to his passing and his leadership, helped elevate a team that spent last season rebuilding.
Meanwhile, for the New York team he once captained, the trade has them eyeing the future.
The 30-year-old McCarty was considered expendable by the Red Bulls because of the emergence of 24-year-old Sean Davis late last year after the Duke product was inserted into the starting XI when McCarty was injured. Also in the pipeline was 18-year-old Tyler Adams (below), who has proven to be a star in the making, whether in central midfield or at right wingback.
The Red Bulls knew that they had two good, young and improving central players in the mix with these two talents. And they decided to leverage McCarty when his value was high.
The implications for Wednesday's match
The Fire are in more of a “win-now” mode, a team built on veterans and replete with MLS experience acquired over the past two years. No one is more symbolic of that rebuilding effort than McCarty, who earned a place for himself with the US men's national team this year after a dozen years in the league.
The Fire are the higher seed, the home team, and the pressure is on them.
The McCarty trade was always about the immediate future for this Fire squad. But the Red Bulls team that traded him away did so for other reasons.
Listen to RBNY head coach Jesse Marsch talk and it is clear that he loved McCarty and valued him as a captain and in his starting XI. But the Red Bulls boss also valued the emerging talent in Davis and Adams, two players who brought plenty of upside as well as significantly less of a hit on the salary budget.
This year wasn’t a total rebuild for the Red Bulls in the way that last year was for Chicago. Yet, New York made it clear early on that they were willing to take their lumps as they pursued a youth movement which also saw the emergence of center back 25-year-old Aaron Long and 21-year-old Panamanian right back Michael Murillo.
“If I reflect back on it, [trading McCarty] was always a hard thing to do, it’s still a hard thing to think about it," Marsch told MLSsoccer.com. "It was, for me, the right thing to do. To see the way Sean Davis and Tyler Adams have blossomed this year, I think has made me feel good about the fact that we need to make room for those two guys."
Marsch doesn’t see Wednesday night’s match as potential validation for the Red Bulls' decision to trade McCarty. Instead, he sees it as have to do “with each club trying to do whatever it can to go after a championship.”
And the Red Bulls, even as the No. 6 seed, believe they have as good a shot at Chicago, especially after closing out the regular season with seven points from their last three matches and a single goal conceded. Their young players are coalescing and maturing. A run to the US Open Cup final, while ending in defeat, was also useful for this team along the way.
But the Red Bulls will definitely be the underdog at Toyota Park against their former captain, and they might even be a season away from getting back to making regular runs at both the Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup. The Fire, however, are built to make a run at tthe title now and over the next season or two.
Two very different teams with two very different seasons, all encapsulated in one big offseason trade that everyone is still talking about.