This past winter, Fire General Manager Nelson Rodriguez spoke several times about the need for a leader or "boss" in the locker room. A player with that reputation is exactly what the team is getting in newly arrived Dax McCarty.
The veteran midfielder joined the team in Fort Myers, Florida last night before participating in his first training session this morning. McCarty didn't shy away from addressing what he feels the downfall of the Fire has been over the last several seasons during a teleconference call with media on Tuesday afternoon.
"I don't know the ins and outs of the front office, and the team and what's been going on," said McCarty. "My view as an outsider is that the team has always been a fairly competitive team. I remember playing against Chicago last year and the year before and thinking, it's never an easy game to play against the Fire. From the outside looking in, and this might sound a bit harsh, but as you get to me know me better I speak my mind and I don't sugar coat things. From the outside looking in, it looked like losing almost became accepted. A culture of losing with this club almost became the norm from the front office down to the players down to all the staff. It almost became like they were indifferent about winning and that's crazy to me. That's insane."
Known for his candor, McCarty didn't stop there and didn't hold back in the assessment.
"When you're a club that hasn't made the playoffs in three or four years, when you're a club that has made the playoffs once in eight or nine years, I don't know the exact numbers but I think that there needs to be a little more accountability and there needs to be accountability from the top down to say, 'this is ridiculous'. For the most part, it's harder to miss the playoffs numerous years in a row than it is to make it numerous years in a row. That's crazy to me, that this culture of losing has kind of been accepted."
"I've said this to Nelson, and I've said this to Pauno, this isn't new. This is how I feel. I told them that I'm not the type of guy, and I'm not the type of player that is going to be okay with being average and having another losing season. I guess that's part of why they're bringing me in, to try to change that culture a little bit. It's not just one player. It's not just one coach. It's the entire organization from the top all the way to the bottom. From the owner, to the president. to the GM, to the head coach, to all the players, to the kid's staff, to the field crew, every single person in the club has to be pulling in the same direction. Every single person has to know that this club is going to be about winning and nothing else will be accepted. From my uneducated perspective on what's going on with the team, it just kind of seemed that losing became okay to everyone and that's something that we need to change."
McCarty was hesitant to say that he alone could change that culture, but cited another player from a winning organization like Juninho could also help reverse fortunes. He believes that the changes made this winter can lead to a group effort in creating a locker room culture of accountability and leadership coupled with team togetherness on and off the field.
"This isn't a one-man effort. I'm not going to make any massive promises about how I'm going to come in and I'm going to change this, and I'm going to change that. I'm going to be myself. I'm going to be the player that I've always been. I'm going to try to be a good leader. I'm going to try my best to help the team on the field, but also help the team off the field," he said.
Despite some similarities in their games, McCarty is looking forward to a field partnership with Juninho. He wasn't quite sure yet how the team will play, or what shape they'll assume but pointed out that playing alongside good players makes transition easier.
"When I saw the Fire made a move for Juninho, when I was still a Red Bulls player, I thought that was a fantastic addition for them," said McCarty of his new teammate. "This is a guy that I've played against a lot in my career. Juninho is a fantastic center midfielder. I think that he never got enough credit for those LA teams that were so good a couple of years ago. He was a huge, huge part of that team and I think that he's a very underrated player."
He's only had one training session under his belt but his initial impression of Veljko Paunovic's approach this season is based on "holding everyone to a high standard."
McCarty has previously addressed his disappointment in learning of the trade from New York, but expanded on those thoughts today. The anger he felt after the transaction wasn't necessarily based on his departure from one of the top teams in MLS to the worst in the league over the last two seasons. "The main part of my emotional side of it was (based) on how the Red Bulls handled the situation. I didn't think they handled the situation in a very classy way," he said.
"I thought that it was not done in an appropriate way, especially in a team that preaches family. This is a team that preaches togetherness, brotherhood, and having each other's back. Trust is a big word that they use." McCarty conceded that he understands the dynamics of the league and how professional sports can work and did realize that a trade was a possibility given the success of Sean Davis in his place last season, but he was still disappointed that New York Red Bull didn't feel he was a player worthy of being given a say in the matter. After serving as their captain and leading the team, he felt that he had earned that consideration and would have respected them more if they would have approached him first.
After the trade, McCarty met with Paunovic and Rodriguez at USMNT camp and the conversation helped ease the tension, but it didn't come overnight. "They said all the right things. They said all the things that I expected them to say. It was always going to take time. That's something that I respect and appreciate about them. They said what they needed to say, (and) I said what I need to say. It was a good meeting. It was a respectful meeting. I saw what their plans are for the club and they laid out what their intentions are to try to bring the Chicago Fire back to the glory days of being a top team in MLS."
McCarty admitted that is was difficult getting through that first week emotionally. "For the most part, they understood where I was coming from," he said of the Chicago technical brass. "They respected the fact that I still needed a little bit of time to process everything and let it sink in and gather my emotions and my thoughts. I'm very happy that they gave me that time and they weren't bombarding me with all kinds of requests for me to do things. They wanted me to focus on the National Team."
Now that he's donned a Fire training kit and US camp is over, McCarty said he will focus on integrating himself into the club. Although he's not necessarily circling the calendar for the first showdown with his former club, he is looking forward to his first game back at Red Bull Arena. A reunion with friends and a potential encounter with Jesse Marsch, who McCarty believes spearheaded the trade is inevitable. "He's just an opposing coach that coaches another team in MLS. I'm on another team that's going to try to beat them," said McCarty in downplaying the motivation for performing against Marsch and New York.
The trade and the way it went down isn't going to sit well with McCarty anytime soon, however.
"It was a decision that was his (Marsch's) decision. I don't think Ali Curtis had anything to do with the decision. I think it's fairly obvious with the way the club is treating Ali right now that it was clear for everyone to see that he is no longer a part of the decision making process going on at the Red Bulls, which is a little surprising to me considering he put together two years of one of the best teams in MLS that won a Supporters Shield and the Eastern Conference. That's a little surprising to me, the way that things are going down with Ali."
"At the end of the day, I totally respect Jesse's decision to trade me for business reasons, if that's his reason. If he wants to get younger guys more minutes, I certainly agree with it in terms of trying to make the club better and move the club on. I told Jesse to his face that I didn't think the way that he handled it was appropriate and it certainly was a big surprise. I certainly thought the club could have gone about it in a little bit better way, but this is life in professional sports. I respect Jesse as a coach. He's a helluva coach. I think he's going to do great things in his career. I think he's a fantastic coach, but obviously as a person and as a human being, I feel that things could have been handled differently, and that's a big shame."
McCarty noted that Paunovic and Rodriguez spoke to people around the league about his character and got very good feedback from everyone, including referees which brought him some amusement.
"This is MLS. Any team makes a couple of moves and they can be contenders after being terrible the year before. The Colorado Rapids are a perfect example of that."
Rodriguez and Paunovic are hoping that holds true in Chicago.