Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
When the New York Red Bulls welcomed back a handful of key players from injury recently, it meant that one of Major League Soccer's most talented rosters was back to full strength and head coach Hans Backe would have a plethora of options at his disposal as he tried building the best possible squad to make a title run.
As we have now learned, sometimes having too many options can be a bad thing.
This certainly seems to be the case with the Red Bulls based on Hans Backe's inexplicable decision to take his most consistent player this season and move into a position that simply isn't one that plays to his strengths.
Dax McCarty has been one of the league's pleasant surprises in 2012. He made the Red Bulls midfield his own amid long-term injuries to veteran options like Teemu Tainio and Rafa Marquez. The consensus around the league is that McCarty's energy and skill have helped anchor New York's midfield for the better part of the season.
He has done this all from the middle of the park. That still didn't stop Backe from deciding, upon the recent return of Tainio and Marquez, that the Red Bulls would be best served by moving McCarty to a role as a right winger.
The move seemed to pay off three weeks ago against the Columbus Crew, when McCarty scored a goal and did an effective job of pinching into the middle, where his natural instincts led him to go, but in New York's past two matches it has become increasingly clear that not only has McCarty's move to the right wing rendered him ineffective, but also Tainio and Marquez have been unable to replace his work rate or stable presence in the Red Bulls' central midfield.
On some level you can see what Backe was thinking when he made the move. Putting McCarty, Tainio and Marquez on the field together should, in theory, help the team control possession. That theory doesn't really work in practice because Tainio and Marquez just don't look capable of keeping up with good central midfields and because McCarty simply isn't a winger.
Perhaps McCarty is a victim of his own success, having played so well throughout the year (he's the team's MVP if not for that Thierry Henry guy) that maybe he actually convinced Backe that he was capable of being a threat on the wing. Here's the thing. He can't. McCarty isn't particularly fast (not by the standards of a quality wide player) and asking him to take people on is about as realistic as asking him to go to the beach and get a tan.
All you have to do is watch McCarty playing on the wing to realize he is uncomfortable at the position and unclear on what exactly to do. At times you can see him stopping himself from joining the battle in central midfield, only to return to the wing where he is rendered relatively invisible.
This shift in personnel has some around the league scratching their heads, like folks at Sporting Kansas City who privately stated that moving McCarty clearly made New York's midfield worse (a statement that came after KC dominated the Red Bulls on their way to handing New York their first home loss of the season). I brought up the McCarty position change to a D.C. United player after their recent win against Philadelphia. That player's response? "Why the hell would they do that?"
Aside from the fact that McCarty isn't a true winger, the Red Bulls roster actually has players capable of manning the right flank. Whether it is Jan Gunnar Solli, Sebastien LeToux, Lloyd Sam or even Connor Lade, the Red Bulls have players with the traits to be more of a threat on the right wing than McCarty, who would probably list right winger pretty far down on his list of positions he is capable of playing (likely just above goalkeeper).
Backe needs to realize the error of his ways ASAP because New York's playoff positioning will depend on it. The sooner he accepts that Tainio simply doesn't have the legs anymore to be a drivin force in the middle, and the sooner he accepts that there is no better player on his roster to anchor the central midfield than McCarty, the sooner the Red Bulls can stabilize and start playing up to their potential.
The Red Bulls may have lucked out in that an injury might force Backe's hand. Rafa Marquez tweaked a hamstring against New England, and if he can't go against Toronto FC on Saturday, Backe will have no choice but to return McCarty to the middle of the park.
It is tough to tell what it will take to make Backe realize that, for all the lineup decisions he has to make (where to play Connor Lade, what to do with slumping Kenny Cooper and where to play Sebastien LeToux among them), where to put Dax McCarty should be one of the easiest decisions he ever has to make. If he doesn't it figure it out quickly, it just might wind up costing the Red Bulls a prime Eastern Conference playoff position, if not the playoffs altogether.