Fire

Dax McCarty ready to 'soak in the moment' in his return to Red Bull Arena

Dax McCarty ready to 'soak in the moment' in his return to Red Bull Arena

When Dax McCarty was traded from the New York Red Bulls to the Chicago Fire in January it was the third time in his 12-year MLS career that he had been traded, but this was the one that affected him the most.

McCarty had been with the Red Bulls for five and a half years, the longest he had been with any team, and leaving New York was not easy for him even though he had been traded before. So when McCarty's new team, the Fire, visit the Red Bulls on Saturday, it won't just be an ordinary game for the 29-year-old midfielder.

"I'd say the Red Bulls meant more to me than any other team that I've been on so far," McCarty said. "In that sense it will probably be a little bit different, but I think the key to just trying to make it as normal as possible is just to treat it like another game, treat it like another three points that you have to try to win against a good team on the road. I just want to make sure that the game doesn't become too big about my return."

When McCarty was traded he had just gotten married and was immediately after headed to training camp with the U.S. national team. He was initially vocal about his frustration in how the Red Bulls handled the trade, but soon after that he didn't want to talk about that aspect of the trade anymore.

With Saturday's match marking his return to Red Bull Arena, the focus shifts back to McCarty and the trade. Now, he wants to focus on the personal side of the trade, the people that are no longer an everyday part of his life. He mentioned security guards, chefs and maintenance crew among the people he will be happy to see again.

"I don't think I got to say a proper goodbye to a lot of the guys on the team and I don't think I got to say a proper goodbye to the fans and 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," McCarty said. "Hopefully I don't get too many boos.

"Whether we win, lose or draw I want to take in the time after the game to make sure the Red Bull fans know how much they meant to me in my time there. I'll 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."

He said his former Red Bulls teammates are some of his best friends and he keeps in touch with many of them. Going up against them and heading to the other locker room will be different.

"Those are guys I went to battle with for a long time and those are guys that I'll probably be friends for life with some of them," McCarty said. "Certainly seeing them on the other side, it will be weird, but it's going to be an enjoyable moment I think. Once the 90 minutes hits and once we step on the field it's going to be a dog fight."

McCarty's two previous trades, from Dallas to D.C. via Portland's expansion draft pick after the 2010 season and from D.C. to the Red Bulls in June of 2011, were very different. After spending five years in Dallas, he was traded by D.C. United after less than half a season.

"I'd say the only time it really was kind of a little bit surreal and kind of emotional was when I went back to Dallas because I was in Dallas for a really long time," McCarty said. "That club meant a lot to me. I wasn't really in D.C. for very long and we played New York so much. It was weird because I got traded from D.C. to New York and I think we played them two or three games after the trade and it was in the middle of the season so that was kind of just a whirlwind.

"Going back to Dallas for the first time, being back in the stadium and seeing the fans and going into the visitors' locker room, all that stuff that comes with it is definitely strange.

Despite his experience with being traded and returning to a former team, McCarty is still expecting it to hit him on Saturday.

"I'll say it's definitely going to be a strange feeling."

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

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Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

The Fire will have to keep the travel itinerary open.

Heading into the final day of the regular season on Sunday, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, the Fire sit third and would host a first-game playoff game, but could also head on the road to Columbus in the first round or even earn a bye.

Depending on what the Fire do in Houston in the regular season finale and what happens elsewhere there are six possible scenarios for the Fire. The Fire could hold onto the No. 3 seed and host the New York Red Bulls, drop to fourth and host either Columbus, Atlanta or New York City FC, fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and travel to New York City or move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a bye into the conference semifinals.

In order to get the bye, the Fire must win and have NYCFC fail to beat Columbus. A draw in Houston would result in a home game in the first round, regardless of other results.

“Definitely things can happen,” defender Matt Polster said. “We’ve looked at it obviously. Columbus can do something and then we do something obviously things happen. It’s not that we don’t look at it as players, but at the end of the day we just want to win.”

Winning in Houston won’t be easy considering the team has an 11-1-4 record at home this season. On top of that, Houston is also fighting for playoff positioning. The Dynamo clinched a playoff berth last weekend and could move into a top four spot with a win and some help.

Expect the Fire to control the possession. Houston likes to play on the counter to utilize speedy attackers Alberth Elis (10 goals, 4 assists), Mauro Manotas (9 goals, 5 assists) and Erick Torres (14 goals, 3 assists).

“We know they’re fast up top so I think for myself, especially being very attacking-minded I definitely have to play a little bit more defensive and wait for the right opportunities to go forward,” Polster said. “Maybe more something like Montreal with (Ignacio) Piatti.”

The Fire’s midfield will still be shorthanded with Bastian Schweinsteiger expected to sit out to continue to rest his calf injury. Juninho returned to training this week after missing the past five games and could play next to Dax McCarty. The Brazilian described the injury as chronic with a bone bruise and some cartilage issues, but he said he feels 100 percent now.

All 11 MLS games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. The Fire will be on NBC Sports Chicago+ with coverage starting with Fire Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.

The other games of importance to the Fire are Columbus at NYCFC and Atlanta hosting Supporters’ Shield-winning Toronto. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he will be drawing on his experience coaching the Serbian Under-20s for how to handle the scoreboard watching aspect of the day.

“Obviously you cannot ignore what’s going on in the other games,” Paunovic said. “We know what we have to say or not say and when to say and all these things so it’s a craft that this job is.

“It’s good to know the information. Then you can manage it.”

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

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USA TODAY

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

American soccer is fresh off the crisis of missing the 2018 World Cup and there’s plenty of screaming and yelling about what should be changed and what needs fixing.

Everything from the leadership of the U.S. Soccer Federation, coach Bruce Arena, the players, Major League Soccer’s relationship with the national team to youth development is being questioned and criticised.

While MLS academies are still, relatively speaking, in their nascent stages (the Fire’s academy launched in 2007) and the fruits of their work are still being realized, the way players are developed in this country has come under fire. That makes a comment from Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez from September 2016, just over two months before the final round of World Cup qualifying began, seem all the more relevant now.

“We’ve had organized soccer through a federation since 1913 and don’t have a male player who in my opinion is of world-class stature,” Rodriguez said. “And I mean no offense to all the great players who’ve represented U.S. Soccer, but my definition of world-class means any team in the world would want them. So that suggests to me that we need to do something differently. I think that the time is right to interject a different perspective. So I think having different experiences, different backgrounds in education and in the formation of young players is really important.”

This was in reference to the Fire hiring a foreign academy director, Frenchman Cedric Cattenoy. In light of the U.S.’s qualifying failure and this comment from a year ago, I asked Rodriguez if he thought there was something wrong in the way players are developed in this country. He began by talking about the “very holistic approach” that the team is trying to implement, on and off the field, but then he said something that stood out.

“I do believe there’s a difference between soccer and football,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday. “Some of that difference is rooted in time and tradition. Some of it is in how it’s taught and interpreted and I want us to teach, speak and play football.”

At first glance, this may come off as somewhat pretentious. Rodriguez is perhaps being snobby about the “soccer” being played in America vs. the “football” being played in the rest of the world.

Here’s the thing: it is pretentious, but it’s not wrong.

For all of its growth in stadiums, attendance, revenue and overall player quality, MLS is still a ways behind the top leagues in the world. After watching both, it doesn’t take long to notice the difference. When the top teams in the top leagues play, the game is faster, sharper, more dynamic and more entertaining.

That’s not to say MLS isn’t an entertaining product, but it can’t match a Champions League match at a world-famous stadium in front of 60,000-plus fans. MLS’ goal should be to get to that level, or at least get close to that level, even if it takes decades. In the meantime, players should learn and be taught the game at its highest level.

With the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and the Champions League easily accessible on TV, young American soccer players can watch the game played at its highest level and idolize the game in that form. MLS is the more accessible avenue of the game, with the ability to attend a game in person and be part of a team’s academy being more available as the league continues to expand and academy setups become more comprehensive and sophisticated.

"What we need to do, all of us in the sport in America, is take a few moments of honest self-reflection and recommit to working in a more collaborative way instead of just trying to protect our little soccer fiefdom in our backyard and neighborhood," Rodriguez said. "(We need) all of us to work aligned so we can reach our goal, which is to get the men’s program at the standard and level of the women’s program, which is an Olympic champion and a world champion several times over."

Rodriguez wants the Fire’s academy and its players to “teach, speak and play football.” In a time when American soccer fans are feeling even more insecure than normal, it’s OK to embrace the pretentious nature of that statement. It’s for the best.