Captain Dax leans on experience to guide his Red Bulls

IMAGE, MATT KREMKAU FOR EMPIRE OF SOCCER

by RUSS McKENZIE

HANOVER, N.J. – The Red Bulls have a long, sordid history when it comes to the playoffs. In fact, the team’s inability to win an MLS Cup throughout its 20 year existence has become a bit of a badge for the club. The closest they came was their one and only final appearance with Juan Pablo Angel leading the way in 2008, losing to the Columbus Crew 3-1 — this weekend’s Eastern Conference Finals opponent.

Team captain Dax McCarty has been a part of some of those heartbreaking playoff results, but he also remembers his single trip to MLS Cup — a 2-1 loss as a member of FC Dallas in 2009.

The experience left an imprint on the Red Bulls’ captain — one he hopes he can lean on as the club continues its run to the final.

“I remember it like it was yesterday,” he told reporters after practice on Friday. “[It’s] probably one of the most painful feelings that I’ve had as a player, as a pro, because … finals don’t come around very often. I’ve only been there once in my career and unfortunately it was a loss.”

It’s these experiences that have made McCarty an extremely valuable commodity for today’s Red Bulls side. Of course, coach Jesse Marsch has made a point to laud the captain for his role in mentoring the young players that dot the Red Bulls 18 man roster at virtually every match this season. Marsch credits McCarty for assisting with defender Matt Miazga’s development.

Then there is the fact that he took over the captain’s armband from the legendary Thierry Henry. Striker Bradley Wright-Phillips, who has spent two and a half seasons training and playing with McCarty talked about that after training on Friday. “He stepped into those boots. Being a captain is a tough job. At this time in my life, I’m older than that, so 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 replacing Thierry Henry, and so far he’s done well.”

DAX TWITTER

Of course, Dax has had moments where he has channeled his inner Henry. There was a moment in the Red Bulls’ regular season visit to Montreal where the captain laced into defender Karl Ouimette. At training shortly thereafter, Dax handled the situation with poise and grace, and the wry little grin that Red Bulls faithful have come to know and love. Dax, who is considered one of the best at his position league wide, cushioning the centerbacks as his teammates transition back from the high press attack to defense, talked about the importance of walking the proverbial walk.

“Leading by example on the field – you don’t know how far your actions, your words, and your mannerisms go towards the team’s mentality. So you constantly have to try to stay positive no matter how frustrating the game is.”

Dax McCarty had an odd road to the Red Bulls. After being selected by the Portland Timbers in the 2010 expansion draft, the Timbers then traded him to New York rival DC United, where he was named captain. After only 13 appearances in a DC shirt, he was traded to the Red Bulls for Dwayne De Rosario.

“Some of the challenges are just making sure the team is ready to play, but first and foremost you have to make sure you’re ready to play yourself. It’s hard to juggle both of those things,” McCarty said. “That was the toughest transition when I was in DC. I think I was focused too much on the team, rather than focusing on myself and how I (was playing).”

McCarty often shows his humble side, giving credit to his teammates while being critical of his own game. The same pattern holds true in his leadership. “It’s not just me,” McCarty says about the team’s success. “It’s four or five other guys in the team that help make sure this team keeps their mentality going in the right direction.”

Through it all, the captain has championed the message of head coach Jesse Marsch, stressing that the club must take on one game at a time if they hope to break their 20 year championship drought. To get there, the Red Bulls face their biggest challenge of the season, but McCarty helps to keep the team firmly anchored to the ground.

“For the most part, the boys feel good. The physical part is almost taken care of, and now the mental part has to be right.”


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