HARRISON, N.J. — Mike Petke's midfield remains a work in progress. That much he knows.
Even after the New York Red Bulls' 3-1 triumph over Toronto FC on Saturday made it four straight wins with Dax McCarty and Eric Alexander in the middle, the coach's instinct wasn't to be overly glowing in his praise of the duo.
"If I was out on the field, I would've choked them a couple times, if I'm being fair," Petke told Goal USA. "But if you look at it as a whole 90 minutes, they've done a very good job since we've started playing them side by side."
That they have. Although McCarty has been limited to a defensive midfield role when partnered with Tim Cahill or Peguy Luyindula this season, the 27-year-old has thrived with Alexander's two-way presence at his side in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Mostly used as a winger over his two seasons in New York, Alexander is more attack-minded than McCarty. But the 26-year-old offers the soccer IQ, range and defensive discipline necessary to play deeper as well.
"Defensively, we've been too open," McCarty said. "We've been too easy to play through. Having another guy in there next to me really helps. It takes a little bit of a load off me defensively, and I have a little more freedom to be able to go forward and be more of an attacking threat. When I'm in there by myself, it's a lot of ground to cover."
Against Toronto, McCarty was the circulator. He completed 56 passes at an 89 percent clip and racked up a team-high eight recoveries. Alexander connected on fewer passes (47) at a lower percentage (84), but was more forward-thinking on the ball and led the team with seven duels won. And that passing accuracy was still better than the numbers Cahill (83) and Luyindula (79) have posted this season.
"They're just plugging a hole," Petke said. "They continue to play simple with the ball when they win it. That's the big thing — when you get players like Dax and Eric, you realize that the less they do, the better they're going to play."
There's also chemistry between the players that dates back to their time together with FC Dallas. When Dallas left McCarty unprotected in the 2010 expansion draft, the club did so knowing it had Alexander waiting in the wings.
Four years later, they're finally excelling as central midfield partners — not competitors for the same spot. Their understanding was evident when Alexander sat back in the 44th minute against Toronto, allowing McCarty to crash the box and prod home his third goal of the season.
"I learned a lot from Dax, especially in my earlier years," Alexander said. "So I know how he plays and we have good communication together. We read off each other pretty well."
Added McCarty: "It's kind of an unspoken balance that you have to have if you're going to play with two holding dual No. 6s. When one of them steps out, the other one has to be in there to cover."
The blossoming partnership has been just one aspect of Petke's shift from a 4-4-2 alignment to the 4-2-3-1. Part of New York's success Saturday stemmed from how playmaker Thierry Henry shadowed Michael Bradley to keep Toronto's midfield catalyst off the ball.
As Petke pointed out, the Red Bulls are still refining this new look — which is a scary thought for Eastern Conference foes heading into the playoffs. While McCarty and Alexander have certainly done their part, having that extra midfield support hasn't hurt.
"It's the work of the team," Henry said. "It's way easier for them when everybody is in front of the ball. That's what we need to keep on doing. As long as we keep doing that, they can shine."