Dax McCarty

Fire extend Dax McCarty's contract in a key move for the club's near future

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USA TODAY

Fire extend Dax McCarty's contract in a key move for the club's near future

For all of the attention paid to Bastian Schweinsteiger and all of Nemanja Nikolic’s goals, Dax McCarty had a solid argument for being the most valuable player on the Fire in 2017.

With that in mind, the Fire announcing a contract extension with McCarty is a big deal for the longer-term future of the club. The 30-year-old is now guaranteed through the 2019 season and there is a club option for 2020 on the deal.

The Fire picked up the option on McCarty’s contract for 2018 and had another option for 2019. In essence, this extension has added another year to the deal.

The midfielder was a key player for the Fire in 2017, helping to stabilize central midfield, long a weakness of the team, along with Schweinsteiger and Juninho. He was an MLS All-Star for the second time in his career.

"Although the year did not end how any of us would have liked, I believe we’re on course to becoming a perennial contender for trophies like Fire teams of old,” McCarty said in a statement released by the club. “Together with the fans, our club can build on the foundation laid last season and now set our sights even higher. I’m excited to be in Chicago long term."

The importance of a solid central midfielder, or two, is the basis of any strong team. The last two MLS Cups have featured two teams with strong players in that position, Michael Bradley for Toronto and Ozzie Alonso and Cristian Roldan for Seattle.

Having that position figured out for the next two seasons, at least, gives general manager Nelson Rodriguez a solid base to build around. McCarty also filled another void that Rodriguez mentioned repeatedly, his vocal leadership.

The one drawback of sorts with McCarty in his first season with the Fire was his consistent call-ups to the U.S. national team, meaning he left the team multiple times throughout 2017. Those call-ups would have continued had the team made the World Cup, but instead, his international career is in doubt and the Americans don’t have any meaningful games in 2018.

Another point worth bringing up is another Rodriguez cliche: a consistent core. Since taking over, he has talked about how successful teams in MLS’ history have had a core of several key players for multiple years. The Fire may not be there with that core yet, but it’s possible to see a team built around McCarty, Nikolic, defender Johan Kappelhof and potentially others (David Accam if he sticks around, Matt Polster and Brandon Vincent if they continue to improve) competing towards the top of the league for the next few years. More additions to that core will be needed to win a trophy, but it’s a solid base to build from.

Fire 'barely put up a fight' in beginning of playoff exit

Fire 'barely put up a fight' in beginning of playoff exit

The Fire’s playoff run was over less than 15 minutes after it started so what the heck happened?

From the run of play the Fire were competitive with the New York Red Bulls with both possession and total shots being fairly even. However, two defensive blunders, with multiple players at fault on each of the early goals, put the Fire down 2-0 in 11 minutes.

There was no coming back from that and once the team sent numbers forward late in the second half to try to come back, New York put the game away. The 4-0 loss was a sour way for the Fire’s season to end.

“I thought we got outplayed all over the field,” said midfielder Dax McCarty, a former Red Bulls player. “That’s a team that’s been battle tested in the playoffs now for five, six years. They’ve experienced a lot of hard games, a lot of tough games in the playoffs. They’ve experienced a lot of disappointed in the playoffs and we aren’t quite there yet.”

Bastian Schweinsteiger didn’t start and played only 25 minutes after coming off a calf injury. While the German said he felt good, there wasn’t much he could do. Five minutes after he entered the match, the Red Bulls took a 3-0 lead.

Coach Veljko Paunovic wasn’t angry or despondent in his postgame press conference. He tried to stay upbeat while looking towards next year. He also took the blame for the ugly 4-0 loss.

“It’s my fault,” Paunovic said. “Obviously it’s my fault. If there is somebody to blame it’s my fault because I think we all could do better.”

[RELATED: Even after playoff failure, Fire's season marked significant progress]

The Fire finished with the third best record in Major League Soccer, but laid an egg in the postseason. There’s plenty of ways to look at that. The team didn’t have enough experience, they were shorthanded due to injuries, they played tight.

Throw any excuse out there, all that matters is the team made a quick exit out of the playoffs and now the offseason has begun.

“It’s just frustrating that we lost and we lost in such a frustrating manner,” McCarty said. “We worked hard, we showed heart, but realistically we barely put up a fight there in the beginning. I thought the first 20 minutes we were struggling to feel like we were in a playoff game. You can’t do that if you want to win.”

Schweinsteiger’s future, along with the futures of many players, will remain in question for the coming weeks. The German’s final words of his first year with the Fire were all positive. He spoke positively about the coaching staff and the teammates, but admitted the team wasn’t good enough yet to win a title.

“I think it was a great success, achievement, what we did this season,” Schweinsteiger said. “I think you need to add one or the other piece. If you have 10 steps, I think we took seven. Eight, nine, 10 those are the hardest ones.”

McCarty echoed Schweinsteiger’s sentiment.

“A lot of guys took a big step forward, but we just weren’t quite ready to make a real realistic push at a championship and that showed in our performance tonight,” McCarty said.

Even after playoff failure, Fire's season marked significant progress

Even after playoff failure, Fire's season marked significant progress

In the playoffs, big moments in a game are magnified and the smallest things can get huge amounts of attention.

However, the Fire’s 4-0 loss on Wednesday was not about fine margins. Two early defensive breakdowns and the inability to seriously threaten the Red Bulls’ goal led to an embarrassing loss.

The emotions Fire fans are enduring right now cover up an important fact: this season was ultimately a solid step forward for the Fire.

When Nelson Rodriguez took over as general manager at the end of the 2015 season, the Fire were a laughing stock. That was the third straight season the club missed the playoffs and in 2015, the team finished dead last in MLS.

Even after sweeping changes that included bringing in coach Veljko Paunovic and revamping a roster that began the year with no players who had been on the team for even two years, the Fire finished dead last again in 2016.

During the losing, Rodriguez continued to preach patience. He repeatedly talked about “getting it right, not getting it fast.”

[RELATED: Fire 'barely put up a fight' in beginning of playoff exit]

Only this year did it become apparent that some of the foundation was in fact put in place in 2016. That wasn’t so easy to see when the team continued to lose on the field, and often looked bad doing so. Players that were key in the team making the playoffs this year were acquired in 2016. Johan Kappelhof and Joao Meira proved to be a solid center back pairing, 2016 first-round pick Brandon Vincent emerged as one of the better left backs in the league after a mistake-filled rookie year, Luis Solignac found a niche on the wing and Michael de Leeuw, although injured for the playoffs, embraced his role as supporting striker while Nemanja Nikolic took all the glory on the way to winning an MLS Golden Boot.

This offseason brought more good acquisitions that helped put the team over the top, including Nikolic. Dax McCarty, Juninho and of course big name star Bastian Schweinsteiger revitalized a midfield that was among the league’s worst a year ago.

So while Wednesday’s ugly defeat marked an earlier end to the postseason than the Fire expected, a wider view should allow for the season as a whole to still be viewed as a success, even if only when considering the context of previous seasons.

Just ask Schweinsteiger, who pointed out the surprise of the team’s regular season success.

“I have to say that this team did an amazing job this season,” Schweinsteiger said. “We were third in the league. I know the players decide everything, but you have to be realistic. Before the season if someone told you guys Chicago Fire would be third after 35 games you would probably say, all, that would not be the case.”

McCarty, who has been on playoff teams eight straight years, called making the playoffs “the bare minimum requirement for success.” The Fire reached that bare minimum and nothing more, but after back-to-back last place finishes, it’s noteworthy progress and brings with it the hope for more progress in the future.

If 2018 mirrors 2017, things might not get such a positive shine, but in the grand scheme of things, 2017 was better than expected and brought life back into what appeared to be a lifeless MLS franchise.