You have to wonder -- is Dax McCarty looking to leave the Red Bulls? His postgame comments after the Bulls lost their playoff series to Columbus certainly invite that thought. He told the New York Post: “We just didn’t play well the entire series. We were outplayed, out-hustled and out-coached.”
Out-coached? A direct criticism of Jesse Marsch, and not at all the sort of thing one usually hears from players. Actually, McCarty seemed to be in a thoroughly gloomy mood as he hadn’t a good word to say for his team: “We just weren’t good enough. We didn’t deserve to advance ... Columbus deserved to win. They were the better team.”
Which is true -- despite those final few hectic minutes as the Bulls sought, and came so close to getting, the goal that would have sent the game to overtime.
McCarty’s bitterly honest assessment is to be commended. Sadly, it lacks a hard look at the source of the Bulls’ problems. To complain, as McCarty did, that “We had no ideas in the final third,” is missing the point. All season long, the Red Bulls have given no evidence of being a team that “has ideas.”
Where would they come from? One would expect them to begin in the midfield. Where there will be -- where there certainly ought to be -- a creative player, a playmaker, a maestro, a brain who will give the team its attacking personality.
So we can forget that possibility at once. There is no such player on the Red Bull roster (the new signing, the Argentine Gonzalo Veron, may fill the role, but little has been seen of him so far). It’s worth pointing out that the other three teams in the semifinals all have such a player -- Columbus has Federico Higuain, Portland has Diego Valeri, and Dallas has Mauro Diaz. All of them Argentine, as it happens.
The Bulls have a South American midfielder, the Brazilian Felipe. Not that you’d recognize him as a Brazilian player -- he is used, it seems, more for his defensive contribution (too frequently physical) than for any so-far unrevealed Brazilian artistry he might have.
Into the creative breach steps, of all people, Dax McCarty. Just how anyone -- specifically coach Marsch -- can view McCarty as a midfield leader needs more explaining than I can manage. Basically a holding midfielder, McCarty is a dynamo, with plenty of energy and effort but average ball skills -- and really not a great deal more to offer.
He left college after two years at North Carolina, but he has never left college soccer behind. He still looks and plays like a college player. As a role-playing defensive midfielder, that may be enough -- someone who harries opponents, who gets in the way, who tackles, who intercepts, who wins the ball ... and then what? He should then pass the ball to someone creative, the very player(s) the Bulls lack. And so McCarty, by default is forced into a creative role that he cannot fulfill.
McCarty has told us that no player works harder than he does to improve his game. That may well be so, but I think he knows that, at age 28, the only improvement he can expect is in being more experienced, and that is not something you work on. He has the aura of a self-made player, one without the luxury of natural talent, who has always had to work hard to create Dax McCarty the player.
A couple of examples of self-made players come to mind -- Kevin Keegan and Jurgen Klinsmann. Both effective players, in limited roles, but both memorable for the tremendous effort they put into their play. Neither could ever be mistaken for a smooth or elegant player. With this sort of player, nothing looks easy.
And that is McCarty, always stretching and straining, often moving with an awkwardness that is alien to the born soccer player.
To use McCarty as the key midfielder, to make him the team captain, is to invite a team to play in his image. And that is what the Red Bulls have been doing all season. McCarty’s “no ideas in the final third” is thus only part of the story. For most of the season (and all of 2014) the Bulls were actually doing pretty well up front, even without ideas, because they had Bradley Wright-Phillips in superb scoring form.
But that form has stuttered lately. Without it, some sort of constructive, flowing, attacking team-play is needed, and the Bulls, with a pedestrian midfield, lacked that. Just one goal -- a ragged, scrambled affair -- was scored against Columbus.
McCarty -- in another critical reference to coaching – commented, “We had a new system, new coach and new players ... but for me, the playoffs feel like a failure.”
A new system. I do not know what that system is supposed to be. I have heard Marsch, on several occasions, use phrases like “what we’re trying to do” and “how we want to play,” but without explanation.
A system that relies on McCarty being played wildly out of position and in a role that is beyond him, and needs an extraordinary run of goalscoring from Bradley Wright-Phillips sounds anything but systematic.
But this damn “system” permeates official Red Bull talk. Here’s a hint as to its meaning from sporting director Ali Curtis: “We're a very high-pressing team so it's important that we have a lot of players on our team that can cover a lot of ground.” Runners, then. Heck, we’re back to college soccer. Is marathon running a prime requirement, I wonder? It may just be. Here’s Curtis again on the type of players sought: “They're team-oriented, they're driven, they're creative, they cover a lot of ground ...” That sounds a lot better, except that I can’t find much evidence that the creative aspect has been much respected.
Marsch and Curtis hint at new signings. In the meantime there is Gonzalo Veron -- signed as a Designated Player over three months ago, who has seen remarkably little playing time. He is acclimating, it seems, “learning our system” according to Curtis.
Maybe Veron is the midfield artist the team needs -- someone who would give it a much more attractive -- and effective -- personality, and who would allow McCarty to use his formidable energy where it can help most, in a clearly defined holding midfielder role. Assuming that he wants to be back next year.