Dax McCarty photo courtesy Nashville SC.
At 32 years old, Dax McCarty started 32 games for the Chicago Fire this season, captaining the squad in all of them*. At the end of the season – as part of a larger-scale house-cleaning that included head coach Veljko Paunovic – McCarty was nonetheless considered surplus to requirements for the 2020 season and beyond.
The Fire’s loss is Nashville SC’s gain, with the Boys in Gold quickly moving to deal for the 14-year MLS veteran.
“The Fire are rebuilding yet again and appear to be looking to go younger players in key positions that will eventually be part of their long term core,” said Guillermo Rivera of Fire Confidential and The Athletic. “At 33 [as of this coming April], McCarty just wasn’t part of that picture. I think they believe they could have gotten more for him but Nashville was his preferred destination and they made it happen for a less than open market price.”
McCarty’s desire to move to the Music City – and the Fire’s desire to do right by a player who spent three years leading the team from central midfield – allowed Nashville SC to get his rights on the cheap. The Boys in Gold dealt $100,000 in combined Allocation Money and a 2021 second-round draft pick for a player with plenty of experience.
McCarty should step right in and become the same leader in Nissan Stadium that he had been in SeatGeek Stadium (this line would have been much better if it were still called Toyota Park, fyi). A steady presence in possession, a backline-protecting shield in defense, and a player capable of spring counter-attacks with the long pass or roaming forward to get directly involved in the offense should serve as an important cog in the inaugural machine for Nashville at the next level.
Most of all, he provides leadership both vocally and by example, even as age has begun to catch up with him.
“He’s lost some range but can still be very effective with the right central midfield partner and/or some mobile players that can help cover ground,” Rivera explained. “He was excellent in early 2017 but went through some injuries that slowed him in 2018. He was relatively healthy in 2019 but nowhere near his best form. He’s still a quality leader and locker room presence who commands respect.
“He has slowed down and doesn’t cover the ground he did before, but he can still play. The Fire didn’t think he was an automatic starter anymore and that hastened the trade. McCarty wasn’t looking to be a part time role player in Chicago.”
A starring role should be in the cards in Nashville. General Manager Mike Jacobs and coach Gary Smith have assembled the beginnings of what could be a very solid roster in year one, and they’ve started from the center of the pitch. McCarty will likely begin the year next to former San José Earthquakes midfielder Aníbal Godoy. Ahead of them, NSC has assembled attacking talent both domestically and from abroad, and behind them in defense… well, check back later.
The complementary nature of their skillsets – Godoy as a ball-winning destroyer and McCarty as a slowing-but-capable defender and distributor – looks like an early recipe for success as younger players in the Nashville system develop, with the eventual goal of stepping into those starring roles.
There may not be a better player than McCarty when it comes to guiding youngsters toward successful careers on the pitch. Not only can he speak from the experience of a career defined by its longevity, he also commands plenty of respect in every locker room he’s in. Not only has he spent the past three years captaining the Fire (over the likes of former German National Team captain Bastian Schweinsteiger and others), but he’s worn the armband in each of his previous two stops, as well.
“He had and still has a very good reputation with players around the league,” Rivera said. “That carried over from New York [Red Bulls] to Chicago. Schweinsteiger respected his work and valued his opinion, which says a lot about him. He’s outspoken, honest, and a hard worker.
“He’s a pretty big personality but he’s not over the top. He’s professional and respectful of fans and media. If you need someone to explain and stand up after a difficult loss, McCarty can be that guy.”
The one worry for some Nashville fans has related not to McCarty specifically, but to the team he led in 2019. Despite solid underlying numbers – the Fire were second in Expected Goal Differential only to a record-setting Los Angeles Football Club – Chicago stumbled to an eighth place finish in the Eastern Conference, missing out on the playoffs for the second straight year. Both in his on-field contributions and his leadership, it’s natural to question the role McCarty played in that level of failing to meet expectations. Largely, the management of the team – it’s likely more meaningful that the head coach was dismissed than that McCarty left for a paltry sum – bears the brunt of that disappointment, though.
“He was one of the players on the field, so he did play some role in that underachievement, but the Fire put together a mix that just didn’t play well together when it counted,” Rivera said. “They racked up some impressive numbers from time to time but those were a bit deceiving because they just never seemed to deliver in big situations and never established a consistent style of play.”
Heading to a first-year franchise, and likely serving as Nashville’s team captain in 2020, McCarty will have the opportunity to help form the identity of the Boys in Gold. Whether it’s done partially in his image is up to both the veteran midfielder and the technical staff for whom he’ll be playing.
His history of success – including 12 US Men’s National Team Caps – and instilling a mindset to help the team around him achieve the same could be even bigger than any tackle or assist he makes in 2020.
*Former Germany National Team captain Bastian Schweinsteiger and second-leading scorer Nemanja Nikolič wore the armband in the two games McCarty was rested.