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Dax McCarty, Chicago Fire represent validation/condemnation for NY Red Bulls

Wednesday 25th October 2017
In 2015, NY Red Bulls changed tack. Outsiders took key roles. Beloved faces were shown the door. Now, NYRB must face one, Dax McCarty, with its season at stake.

Just once, wouldn't you like to see a sporting figure who is under the cosh for a questionable decision shrug his shoulders and answer incredulous reporters by saying, "It seemed like a good idea at the time."

Of course, at that time, such a reply is never a good idea. The result is entirely predictable. A babbling rush of journos stampeding one another to press a microphone in his face so they can ask how on Jock Stein's green earth he could have possibly thought any such thing? Sadly, it would escape the entire herd that they'd just been given the most honest answer to a question ever to be heard in their professional lives.

Good ideas at the time have ended many a career. Civilisations, for that matter. In the Red Bulls' case, said good idea occurred in 2015.
Under native son Mike Petke, New York had retooled after Thierry Henry's 2014 retirement. Tim Cahill was allowed to leave, the now-37-year-old taking the key to immortality with him back to the Australian A-League. Other veterans, such as Joel Lindpere, Kenny Cooper, and the Frenchman filled with brotherly love, Sebastien Le Toux, were also bid farewell. It would be left to the next generation to break through the barrier which, for several years, had kept the team a stone's throw from the MLS Cup Final. Rather than trust that generation to Petke, the buttoned down Bohemian was unceremoniously sacked in favour of Montreal Impact boss Jesse Marsch.

Precocious goalscorer Bradley Wright-Phillips became the face of the franchise, box-to-box midfielder Dax McCarty its heart. Yet, after joining Chris Wondolowski and Roy Lassiter as record-holders for goals in a season, with 2014's 27, Wright-Phillips regressed to 17 in 2015. Not having Henry, Cahill, and Bobby Convey around to draw defenders may have had something to do with that, despite Marsch signing playmaker Sacha Kljestan from Anderlecht.

Even with BWP not firing on all cylinders, Red Bulls made the 2015 MLS Eastern Conference Final. Once there, however, they hit the proverbial brick wall. It was Columbus Crew and Kei Kamara who advanced to the MLS Cup match.

In 2016, Wright-Phillips scoring tally spiked to 24. It made no difference. New York was eliminated in the conference semi-final, manhandled by Marsch's former employer, the Impact. Cold dishes of revenge are often served as pre-game meals in MLS.

It turned out McCarty would bear the brunt for the latest failure. The Red Bull captain was dealt to Chicago Fire in the off-season.
In Major League Soccer's first decade, Chicago enjoyed success New York has long dreamed will be theirs. The Fire won the MLS Cup in the league's third season and the Supporters' Shield in 2003. Between 1998 and 2006, Chicago dominated the US Open Cup, winning the FA Cup's American equivalent four times. Then the club sank as deep into obscurity as a league without relegation permits.

During its 2007-16 malaise, there were one or two false dawns for the Fire. Mostly, though, the side specialised in ineptitude. Then, in 2015, just as Red Bulls were having what seemed like one, Chicago had a bonafide good idea. The franchise hired Nelson Rodriguez as General Manager, again, roughly the American equivalent for Sporting Director. Over two seasons Rodriguez cleaned house in the executive suites, while allowing his choice for coach, Veljko Paunovic, to test the MLS waters.

With a new hierarchy behind him in 2017, offering its full support, Paunovic began playing chess in the transfer market. The Serb rebuilt the entire midfield. McCarty arrived via trade from New York. Former LA Galaxy mainstay Juninho came on loan from Tijuana. Then Bastian Schweinsteiger arrived to direct traffic, try his hand at baseball, and explain to local media the difference between club and international football.
With team goals dialed to 'realistic', Paunovic then signed Hungarian striker Nemanja Nikolic to be the midfield's focal point. The plan worked to perfection. Nikolic won the Golden Boot in his first MLS campaign. Chicago quietly finished third, while Toronto FC, NYCFC, and Tata Martino's newcomers, Atlanta United made all the Eastern Conference noise.

Meanwhile, Marsch's Red Bulls eased into the final Eastern Conference playoff slot. The taurine drinkers were off the pace set by the top five but comfortably fronted seventh-place New England by five points. It was also revealed Bradley Wright-Phillips is quite possibly a closet Joan Jett fan. Teammates saw him arriving on the scene, and once again he must have scored about 17.

He and Kljestan will find it difficult to hang with the Fire, however. McCarty will be gunning for them with numbers on his side. Chicago is looking like yet another brick wall for the Red Bulls.

Then, there's Mike Petke. He isn't in New York's path this season. His new club, Real Salt Lake couldn't quite cut it out west, missing the playoffs by a point. One gets the sense the former Red Bull boss has RSL back on track. Should the Red Bulls break through the wall to reach an MLS Cup Final, it seems inevitable Petke will be waiting with the Claret and Cobalt. The football gods are too hooked on irony for it to play out any other way.
Martin Palazzotto

The former editor of World Football Columns, Martin authored the short story collection strange bOUnce. He appeared in several other blogs which no longer exist. Old, he likes to bring out defunct. If outdated sport and pop-cultural references intrude on his meanderings for It's Round and It's White, don't be alarmed. He's harmless.

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