Chicago Fire midfielder Dax McCarty’s calendar year began with an 11-day stretch that was nothing short of seismic.
After receiving a call into U.S. Men’s National Team camp on Jan. 5 -- his first since 2011, no less -- McCarty then got married in Florida on Jan. 14. He took just one personal day before boarding a flight out to California to join up with then–head coach Bruce Arena’s American contingent. On the day he arrived -- Jan. 16 -- it was announced that he’d been traded from the New York Red Bulls, where he’d served as captain for the previous two seasons.
"You guys know as well as I do, MLS offseasons are very unpredictable," McCarty would joke to reporters, just about 10 months later.
The Fire had acquired McCarty in exchange for $400,000 in General Allocation Money in an effort to help bolster a midfield that had already added three-time MLS Cup winner Juninho in December, and would later sign World Cup-winner Bastian Schweinsteiger at the end of March.
McCarty's ability to lead both on and off the field had made him both a captain and fan favorite in New York, as well as a key part of a Red Bulls core that won the Supporters Shield in both the 2013 and 2015 seasons. To anyone paying attention, he was a well-known quantity. McCarty's adjustment to and influence in Chicago was expected to be a big factor in how the Fire attempted to shape a winning mentality from preseason onward.
"In the beginning of the season, there was a little uncertainty,” he said. "You go through preseason with a lot of new pieces, you never really know how it’s going to turn out. I think the first couple games, it was hit and miss. We played well in some games, we didn’t play well in other games."
From his deep-lying position in the midfield, McCarty’s knack for playing incisive passes through defensive lines directly contributed to four early points for the Men In Red as the 2017 season got underway. His stoppage time ball over the top to Luis Solignac against Montreal on April 1 was volleyed home and helped the Fire rescue a late point in a 2-2 draw. The following weekend against Columbus, McCarty played a pinpoint pass from the center circle for an on-running Nemanja Nikolic to finish inside the 18-yard box and give the Fire a 1-0 lead they would not relinquish.
For all his early offensive contributions, it was McCarty’s ability to win back in midfield possession and advance it quickly that helped spur an 11-match unbeaten streak that ran from May through early July. McCarty went the full 90 in seven of those eleven matches, helping shield a rapidly-gelling Fire defensive unit when not on-call with the U.S. Men’s National Team.
After a convincing win over Orlando City SC on June 24, McCarty offered an honest assessment of where the club stood and where it still wanted to go:
"I think we started really hitting our stride in the beginning of summer,” he said. "Going throughout the summer, obviously we had that 11-game unbeaten run and that was something that really gave our club and our players a lot of confidence. That was something that we felt really strongly about, that we’re heading in the right direction."
McCarty was again selected to Arena's U.S. roster in July, this time to take part in the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup tournament. He would appear in five matches during their triumphant run -- including a late substitution to help close a 2-1 win against Jamaica in the final -- and earn his first bit of international silverware in the process.
He’d follow that up with an appearance in the 2017 MLS All-Star Game at Soldier Field – the second All-Star selection of his career – where his marauding header helped set up the MLS’ lone goal in a 1-1 draw with Spanish giants Real Madrid.
As MLS play resumed, the Fire found themselves in a tough late-summer stretch, losing six of seven matches in July and August following the Gold Cup break. Results stabilized into September and October, as the club ultimately finished third in the Eastern Conference and achieved a postseason berth for the first time since 2012.
“Obviously, we weren’t able to sustain that (summer form), but I think that’s a little bit of a recipe for what it takes to be successful in Major League Soccer,” McCarty said. "Consistent performances, guys being on the same page, and the mentality of the group saying ‘It doesn’t matter how many games we win, we’re hungry for more wins and we’re hungry to continue to just take it one game at a time.’"
McCarty’s impact throughout his first season in Chicago is tough to understate. As far as numbers go, the 30-year-old finished the 2017 campaign among the team leaders in just about every relevant statistical category outside of goals scored (via Opta):
Passes in Opponent's Half
Accuracy in Opponent's Half
As far as instilling a winning mentality goes, that's tougher to quantify. However, the Fire's turnaround from a last place finish in 2016 to third in the Supporters Shield standings in 2017 is certainly -- in part -- a testament to his presence. Now, as McCarty approaches his first offseason in Chicago, he's candid about his desire for continued improvement in 2018.
"I think we took a big step forward this year in a lot of areas, but I also think that in order to accomplish the goals that you want to accomplish – which is winning silverware – you can’t be satisfied with just having a pretty good regular season and making the playoffs."