HARRISON, N.J. – Dax McCarty was fuming, irate at himself for what had just transpired.
The ultra-competitive midfielder allowed Alvaro Saborio to create the slightest bit of space before firing home a wonderful strike that appeared to doom the New York Red Bulls to a demoralizing defeat at home to Real Salt Lake.
McCarty and the Red Bulls refused to roll over, however. After Fabian Espindola converted a 90th-minute penalty kick to pull New York level, McCarty made amends for his earlier mistake by scoring a dramatic and heroic game-winner in the fourth minute of stoppage time in the Red Bulls’ thrilling 4-3 win this past Saturday.
“[Head coach Mike Petke is] probably really happy with me right now, but I don’t think he was too happy when I was running into the box,” McCarty said after the match that many have dubbed as an instant classic. “After the third goal he said, ‘Listen, I know we’re at home but sit in front of the back four. We can’t give up another goal. We have to be smart about this.’"
“I saw Eric Alexander sitting a little bit and when the ball was kind of getting worked out wide, I thought, ‘Ah, I’ll give it a go. Why not? Only a couple of minutes left,’ and … I saw Peguy [Luyindula] and I thought he was about to kick me in the face but I figured I’d just channel my inner-Tim Cahill and stick my head probably where it didn’t belong.””
The result of McCarty’s gamble led to more than just a delighted Petke. Red Bull Arena burst into festive scenes that McCarty described as the “loudest” he’s ever heard the stadium get.
The goal also elated McCarty, who celebrated by removing his jersey as he ran towards the corner flag with a huge smile on his face. The joy McCarty felt was not only because his diving header made up for his earlier mistake against Saborio, but also because it could serve as a turning point for an underrated veteran player that has been hindered by a quad injury (suffered in late April) more than has been let on.
“Dax is still coming back,” said Petke in his postgame press conference. “We had talked the last couple weeks. He’s not satisfied exactly where he’s at. Neither am I, because I expect so much from him.
“Having said that, he’s not playing terrible. I think once Dax embraces exactly what I want from him and can put that in week and week out, that’s when you might see him get to the next level because we have high hopes for Dax.”
Due to the knock that forced him to miss four games, McCarty has struggled to replicate the type of form that made him a revelation during the 2012 season. He has been serviceable, but not anywhere near as dominant as he was last year.
That’s been hard for the 26-year-old McCarty to deal with, especially since he sets the bar so high for himself.
“I’ve been struggling a bit mentally because I expect myself to be at a very high standard every single game and it’s been tough coming back from the injury,” said McCarty. “I was really consistent last year. I didn’t have many ups and downs, I just had a lot of ups and kept it really consistent.
“This year’s been tough because the injury is a weird one. It’s one that you lose fitness, you don’t have confidence in your muscle and it takes time to gradually get back to where you were.”
It may take time, but this past Saturday was a giant positive to build on. Now, McCarty needs to take the confidence gained from scoring such a memorable winner and work his way back to his very best.
He knows that and he’s ready to do it.
“I just have to take it step by step,” said McCarty. “It’s not perfect. Tonight I felt like I gave away a couple of passes that were just simple balls, and that’s uncharacteristic of me, but at the end of the day that happens and you have to just wipe that off.
“Nobody remembers those, everyone will just remember the goal, but I’ll remember them. I’ll know that and I’ll know I have to improve and get better, because for this team to be successful, everyone has to be playing at the highest level, and that’s myself included.”