Dax McCarty’s first three months in a D.C. United uniform haven’t exactly gone according to plan.
Acquired in a November trade three days after he represented FC Dallas in the MLS Cup, the Florida native was brought in to help stabilize a United midfield that lacked cohesion and leadership in 2010.
But his start to the season turned out to be an inconsistent spell as he adapted to a new team and system. More recently, a lingering groin injury has limited him to two appearances off the bench during United’s past four matches.
After playing the entire second half of last weekend’s 1-1 draw at Real Salt Lake, McCarty seems poised to return to the starting 11 when D.C. hosts the Houston Dynamo on Saturday.
“To his credit, he’s worked hard and there have been no complaints,” coach Ben Olsen said. “He came in the other night and did a great job for us, so we’ll look for him to continue to be a big piece of this puzzle.”
McCarty emerged as one of the top box-to-box midfielders in MLS during the past two campaigns, starting 45 of 48 games played for Dallas and earning a reputation for his grit, energy and positive locker room presence.
During the offseason, United shipped talented left back Rodney Wallace to Portland, which had acquired McCarty’s rights in the expansion draft, and brought the 24-year-old to the nation’s capital. McCarty made an instant impression, and Olsen named him the fifth captain in team history before the season opener.
Although he started D.C.’s first 10 contests, McCarty didn’t seem entirely comfortable slotting into Olsen’s lineup as an advanced central midfielder. He played a deeper role in Dallas behind playmaker David Ferreira, the 2010 MLS MVP, and had grown accustomed to less pressing offensive responsibilities.
While McCarty’s hustle for United never waned, his assertiveness on the ball and his set-piece quality were sometimes lacking. In search of a spark, Olsen replaced McCarty with Branko Boskovic in the second half of three consecutive games in late April before the Montenegro international tore his ACL.
“I haven’t been at my best,” McCarty said. “I’m still trying to get back to the level I know I’m capable of playing.
“I knew in the back of my head that the coaching staff and ownership gave up a lot to get me. [When] you’re brought in to help turn the ship around, there’s definitely a little bit of pressure.”
McCarty’s slow start to the season didn’t help his U.S. national team prospects. Coach Bob Bradley liked what he saw out of McCarty during a January training camp, selecting him as captain for a friendly that pitted an experimental American squad against Chile. But with a wealth of midfield options at his disposal, Bradley left the 2008 Olympic veteran off the U.S. team for this month’s Gold Cup.
Just when it seemed McCarty was starting to turn a corner and round into form for United with some encouraging outings, he suffered a groin strain in training that has kept him out of the starting lineup since May 14.
“Mentally, it took a little toll on him,” striker Charlie Davies said. “But we’ll see a lot from Dax and much more to come, hopefully sooner than later.”
As McCarty works his way back into the first 11, questions remain about how to best use his skill set. Partnered centrally with defensive midfielder Clyde Simms for most of the season thus far, McCarty seemed comfortable playing with the more attack-minded Stephen King against Salt Lake.
Even though United’s forays forward typically flow through the play of wingers Chris Pontius and Andy Najar, the presence of a true playmaker in the middle - whether it be King or a player acquired in the summer transfer window - could help alleviate the burden on McCarty and add some punch to D.C.’s offense.
“I like it a lot,” McCarty said. “It means I can go back and find the ball a little bit deeper and sometimes dictate play from a deeper position, which is something I’m comfortable with.”
No matter where he lines up, McCarty emphasized that he wants to live up to the expectations that accompanied him when he first came to United and truly become the authoritative midfield general both he and the club envisioned.
“I really wanted to test myself,” McCarty said. “I’m constantly trying to figure out how I can do little things that help the team but also help me get back to the way I know I have to play for the team to be successful. And I think I’m starting to get more comfortable with each game.”