Dax McCarty knew what people would think when he saw he was traded for MLS legend Dwayne DeRosario last year. People would scratch their heads and try to understand why the New York Red Bulls would give up a player regarded as one of the best in the league for a player who wasn't nearly as much of a stat producer or impact contributor.
When DeRosario went on to enjoy an MVP season with DC United , and McCarty struggled in his first season in New York, the trade was quickly labeled one of the worst in MLS history. McCarty felt the pressure to perform and never quite got going in 2011.
This year, however, McCarty has quietly put together one of the best seasons of any midfielder in MLS. Deployed in a more defensive-minded role by Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe, McCarty has provided a calming presence in the middle of the field. He is one of the key reasons the Red Bulls were able to overcome a lengthy injury absence of Thierry Henry to make an improbable run into first place in the Eastern Conference.
"I think the main thing is having a comfort level," McCarty said of his success in 2012. "When I had those great seasons in Dallas, I had been there for a while. I knew the guys on the team. I was settled and I was happy.
"When I went to DC I went through a transition I really wasn't used to," McCarty said. "In fairness to DC, I don't think I ever played the way I should have, or how they expected me to play.
"This year I came in with a goal to be as fit as possible and make sure I got comfortable with the guys and the coaching staff," McCarty said. "I think I'm playing more free, more like myself. I'm playing with confidence. I never lost confidence, but it's not easy making that transition."
McCarty hasn't racked up the goals or assists, but it can definitely be argued that he has been just as important to New York's success this year as DeRosario has been to DC United's success. That doesn't mean the opinions on the trade have changed to favor the Red Bulls, but McCarty has done his part to quiet the notion that New York came up empty-handed.
McCarty has also thrived in a role that isn't the one he spent most of his MLS career playing. More of an attacking midfielder previously in his career, this year he was forced to play as a defensive midfielder because of injuries, and what the Red Bulls found was a perfect player to fit in front of the back four. He has thrived in that role, making key tackles and also providing a steady link between the defense and the attack.
"I think people underestimate me because of my size and figure I can't play in that role, but I'm a tough guy and I like to get stuck in challenges and I don't shy away from tackles," McCarty said. "That's something I've learned in this league, especially how physical it is, that you have to be willing to put in the dirty work."
Thanks to McCarty's steady play, the Red Bulls have overcome injuries to grab a share of first place with the same DC United side that traded him--the same team McCarty helped the Red Bulls defeat last week at Red Bull Arena.
Here is a look at this weekend's Top Five MLS Matches to Watch:
SAN JOSE EARTHQUAKES VS. LA GALAXY
The first-place Earthquakes take on the streaking Galaxy in a match that is too tough to call based on recent form. Both teams have been outstanding in recent weeks, though San Jose has made it look more exciting by continuing to secure results with late-game heroics.
Landon Donovan has stepped his game up since returning from the national team and the Earthquakes will need to keep him in check if they are going to hold serve at home (the game is being played at Stanford Stadium, not San Jose's usual home of Buck Shaw Stadium).
For San Jose, the team has been relying quite a bit on Alan Gordon coming off the bench, but the starting forward tandem of Chris Wondolowski and Steven Lenhart should find success against a Galaxy back-line that has improved, but is still vulnerable.
SPORTING KC VS. CHICAGO FIRE
Last week's 4-0 humbling at the hands of Philadelphia surely served as a wake-up call for Sporting KC , and their mid-week US Open Cup romp showed a team that has heeded that call. Now they will have a chance to show how serious they are about reclaiming the top spot in the East.
The Fire will have something to say about that. The improving play of midfield standout Marco Pappa has given the inconsistent Chicago attack an extra boost, and the Fire have won three of five matches as a result. They have the speed to cause Sporting KC problems defensively. The real question is whether Chicago's defense can contain Sporting KC's dangerous forward trio.
TORONTO FC VS. NY RED BULLS
The Red Bulls are in first place and TFC is in last place, so why is this game on the list? Toronto FC has enjoyed an attacking renaissance under new head coach Paul Mariner, and they will definitely test New York's defense when the sides meet at BMO Field.
TFC has gone unbeaten in three matches thanks to an offense riding the outstanding form of Ryan Johnson and Danny Koevermans, but just as important has been the work in midfield of Torsten Frings, who has hit his stride in recent weeks. New York's defense has shown real vulnerability lately, and will need strong outings from Rafa Marquez and Heath Pearce to keep this one from being a shootout.
HOUSTON DYNAMO VS. PHILADELPHIA UNION
Two teams heading in seemingly opposite directions square off at BBVA Compass Stadium. The Dynamo have hit a skid, with their normally stingy defense suddenly looking extremely vulnerable. They take on a Philadelphia Union side that has looked much better since John Hackworth replaced Peter Nowak as head coach.
The key for the Dynamo will be containing the Union midfield creators like Freddy Adu and Michael Farfan, while Houston will look to use the streaking Will Bruin to test a good, but small Union back four.
COLUMBUS CREW VS. REAL SALT LAKE
Two teams coming off rough weeks will battle it out in a match that might not be as high-profile as others, but will be just as intriguing. RSL struggled defensively in losses to LA and San Jose last week, and the injury absences of centerbacks Jamison Olave and Chris Schuler have been a key cause for those issues.
The Crew doesn't exactly have the attacking weapons to take advantage of Real Salt Lake 's defensive woes, but their defense can make things tough on RSL, and goalkeeper Andy Gruenebaum will need to be at his best against a potent Real Salt Lake attack.