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N-Rod’s Fire - Smart, Committed, Getting Paid

The Fire’s new acquisitions share a few crucial attributes

DC United v New York Red Bulls
Dax becomes the first Fire to replicate Mike Magee’s ‘endless complaint’ ability since the striker left the club (then retired, dang)
Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Let’s take a moment here and realize that there’s more going on here than the Fire getting one of the better central midfielders in MLS for $400k of that funny-money Nelson Rodriguez has been hoarding. We’re gaining another badass, and the Red Bulls are losing their captain. Feel Janel’s pain!

Except, not really, because wow, this is good for the Chicago Fire. Sorry, Janel. Sorry, good folks at Once A Metro. Any effort on my part to sound honestly sorry will be a lie. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I’m delighted Dax McCarty is joining the Men in Red.

There’s gonna be people who will tell you this is wrong. They’ll say, “No, no, he’s a sneaky-dirty little ginger dick who thinks he sees everything at a higher level.” To which I say, “Yes, yes, he’s OUR sneaky-dirty little ginger leader who thinks he sees everything at a higher level.”

It’s been almost 20 years now. Perhaps we’ve forgotten whence we came. But the Archetypal Fire, those all-conquering near-myths from 1998, were a bunch of sneaky-dirty filth magnets who delighted the cheerfully debauched BarnBurners with a rogue’s array of sucker punches, dives and late-boots-left-in. And it wasn’t a select thug or two; at the heart was Nowak, agent provocateur, gleefully sowing chaos in weaker-minded foes. We also had this midfielder named Armas. This defender named Brown. A certain Mr. Stoichkov. One called Kovalenko. The filth is a part of the Fire’s DNA.

About the seeing: he’s always had a point about that, has Dax. And we know a lot about him. He’s been in the league since he was 18. He’s gone from ‘promising’ to ‘breaking through’ to ‘prematurely featured’ to ‘leader’ in that time, his position drifting about the field before settling, the last 5 years or so, as the deepest-lying midfielder in a possession-oriented system - a seer, a smoother-over, a guy who finds a way to blunt the sudden thrust and turn the play back his way. He makes the people around him better because he’s smart enough to understand the pattern of a team, both in vague concept and somehow in the flow of the game as it pours around him.

All of which is a bit weird, because he’s never stopped careening around. McCarty’s game is not all subtle touches and knit brows - he still plows into tactical fouls with a brash, combative swagger that rubs opponents the wrong way, and he’s as likely to begin a team-wide fracas as quell one. What he doesn’t do, generally, is leave his teammates feeling that they can’t rely on him to have their backs. If he can stay healthy, Chicago is gonna love him.

It’s true that he’s turning 30. It’s also true that, at some level, the hard-eyed reaping going on in New Jersey is probably part of a more sustainable general success than the experience-hoarding happening in Chicago. But after years of just drifting, cadging together lineups that betrayed little ethos beyond “So when the whistle blows, we got 11 guys out there,” the Fire have moved in a definitive direction: The Men in Red will be the smartest team in the league.

High football IQs only, please

There is this place on the internet called BigSoccer.* It’s a message board community with thousands of users. Years ago, it was one of the primary gathering-spots for the far-flung Early Period USA Football Nerds and their affiliated social circles. That said, it’s a message board community: Endless pedantry! Humorlessness! Trolls!, etc. … stay with me here, I’m coming ‘round to the point.

Years ago, one of the more verdant places on BigSoccer was the MLS News & Analysis* forum, where MLS nerds would argue (sometimes drunkenly) about attendance and expansion and pro/rel and income streams and league structure and pro/rel. And pro/rel. One of the evergreen topics there - a realization that, traditionally, every MLS fan comes into when they’ve seriously followed the league for a while - is this: “Man, MLS rosters would be soooo much better if they could just spread a big DPs money out over the whole team. Like, if all the starters were, like, starters, making like 300, 400k like a Mexican team …”

I guess what I’m saying is two-fold. First, if you’re among this new group of MLS followers, welcome! DO NOT post a new thread about this insight on BigSoccer News & Analysis; just don’t. And second, gather ‘round, MLS grogards and noobs alike, because Nelson Rodriguez looks like he’s gonna do his damnedest to test that idea in the wild with the 2017 Chicago Fire.

Attend: Seven of the notional Fire best XI are already making more than $250k - Bava, Kappelhof, Juninho, McCarty, de Leeuw, Accam, Nikolic. Rodriguez still reportedly has a bit of Targeted and General Allocation Money, and an unused Designated Player slot. By March, it could be has high as nine.

The quickfire additions of Juninho and McCarty have transformed the expectations for style of play in a way that’s both immediately recognizable and utterly stunning. Even when playing well in recent years, the Fire have not often controlled possession through the center of the pitch. In Juninho and McCarty, the Men in Red have added two central midfielders with a proven ability not only to keep the ball, but to react intelligently and without ego to the many different phases of a game - and that seems to be true of the other targets for the Wonder Twins, Nelson and Pauno.

Finally, the Men in Red seem to be adding leaders or leader-types, guys who have a reputation for being good to play around, good teammates, ‘play for the badge’ types who connect with supporters on a visceral level. Nikolic’s farewell to Legia was something to behold, a weepy tribute to an adopted son. Galaxy fans spent the last year staring confused at the Juninho-shaped hole in their midfield. And the dumbfounded shock - exemplified by Janel’s tweet-thread - that rippled through Red Bulls social media when news of the McCarty deal came out was both gratifying (in a Fire-supporter schadenfreude kind of way) and heart-tuggingly earnest: They’re worried about their team a bit, but they’re mostly sad because they’re gonna miss their captain, Dax.

The rumored interest in Jonathon Spector dovetails with these critera nicely (and fills a yawning need at right back): A smart player, team first guy, accomplished pro with a strong track record. And gets paid like it.

Even Achilles had that heel

There is a standard response to this thread on BigSoccer, and it can run as short as a single word: “Injuries?”

The slightly longer version is, “So you’ve tied all that cap money up in the starting XI, and it looks great, but what happens when three of them are injured? How about five?”

Injuries. Even leader-types get dinged up more often when they’re pushing 30, and everyone the Fire have added outside the draft is right there pushing. Time to make a really strong pitch for better medical funding, Mr. Rodriguez. Don’t want your revolution stalled by a couple dodgy hamstrings.

* These are still around, and still kicking.