WASHINGTON, D.C. - It's never easy to be the guy that follows The Guy. If Dax McCarty didn't know that before coming to D.C. United in a trade from the expansion Portland Timbers this past November, if he didn't know it after being chosen as club captain by D.C. United coach Ben Olsen to replace the club's all-time leading scorer Jaime Moreno, then the lesson finally seemed to be sinking in as the 24-year-old trudged to his locker to meet the media after Saturday's 1-1 draw against the Colorado Rapids.
"'How do you feel, Dax?" someone asked.
"As well as I can considering we just gave away two points," McCarty responded evenly.
If McCarty had chosen to snap, he would have been forgiven. It wasn't so long ago that McCarty appeared to be locking down an airtight case to succeed Landon Donovan as The Next Great American Playmaking Midfielder. At FC Dallas, he'd helped the Toros into the 2010 MLS Cup Final, where they were defeated 2-1 after extra time by Colorado. The day after the final, FC Dallas announced that they would not protect McCarty from selection in the MLS Expansion Draft by either Portland or Vancouver. Faced with a surplus of midfield talent, including Daniel Hernandez and Eric Avila, Dallas clearly though McCarty was expendable.
In one whirlwind day last November 24, the day before Thanksgiving, McCarty was selected with the Expansion Draft's first overall pick by Portland, who promptly flipped him to United for defender Rodney Wallace and a fourth-round pick in last January's MLS SuperDraft.
"I thought it would be an interesting experience," McCarty said about joining United. "I knew that there were a lot of new faces, a lot of young players, a young coach who's hungry for success. I thought that there would be some growing pains along the way. And so far, it's been a bit of a roller coaster. We've done some good things and some things that are unacceptable."
United's form through the first 10 games has proven McCarty right. They currently sit with a record of 3-4-3, good for only sixth place in the tightly packed nine-team Eastern Conference. Their good days (wins over Seattle, Columbus and Toronto, as well a creditable draw against Los Angeles) have been offset by plenty of bad ones (a 4-0 loss at home to New York and 4-1 beatings at Colorado and Houston). They've conceded the first goal in six of their ten matches, something that particularly rankles McCarty.
"It's frustrating," McCarty said. "Sometimes, it feels like we play two games. But, I think in the second half [Saturday against Colorado], we came out and showed what kind of team we can be."
On top of adjusting to a new home, new teammates and coaches, and new surroundings, McCarty has also had to get used to a slightly different system alongside fellow central midfielder Clyde Simms. After copping criticism from some fans, as well as this writer, for holding the ball too long going foward, McCarty has made a conscious effort to return to his more familiar role as a deep-lying distributor and holding midfielder.
"We ask a lot of Dax," Olsen said Saturday night. "He does a lot of stuff that people don't always see. He did a lot on the ball [Saturday night]."
There's still plenty of time for McCarty to fulfill the promise that he showed in Dallas, but the sudden changes of the last few months can hardly be called optimal. Nevertheless, McCarty remains a member of the U.S. player pool, and with U.S. national team manager Bob Bradley watching at RFK Saturday night, McCarty went the full 90 minutes, recording one shot and taking two corner kicks.
"I try not to think about it too much," McCarty said of a possible call-up to the national team for this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup. "Obviously, I'm always up for playing in front of big crowds and in front of important people. But as far as this summer goes, I'm still a young guy, sort of on the fringes (he has five international caps to his name so far in his career). I hope it happens, but if it doesn't, I'll just take it on the chin and try to get better."
"He's been put in a very tough position," Chris Pontius said of McCarty Saturday. "It's not easy to get traded, come in and captain your new team, but Dax has handled it very well. He demands a lot of himself, and that's what you want in a leader, a guy who holds himself accountable."
"I feel I still have a lot more to give," McCarty said. "I haven't played my best soccer yet."