Dax McCarty knows it won't be easy, but he believes he is ready. He will board the Chicago Fire's team bus on Saturday for a ride to Red Bull Arena he hasn't had to take in six years. He will walk past the door to the Red Bulls locker room, potentially fighting the habit to grab it and head in. He will walk by walls where his picture hung just six months ago, and take the field he called home for six seasons, only this time he will be wearing a different badge over his heart.
Players facing their former teams isn't exactly rare, but the circumstances surrounding McCarty's departure from the Red Bulls have added plenty of gravity to Saturday's match.
Less than a year removed from bypassing free agency to sign a new deal and then being named captain, McCarty was traded to the Fire, and was told of the deal a day after his wedding. The news left McCarty shocked and surprised, even though, as it turns out, the Red Bulls and Chicago Fire had been having discussions about a potential trade for a while.
Three months have passed since that trade, enough time to let McCarty come to grips with the change. He and Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch have spoken and resolved the hard feelings that existed in the wake of the deal. All that's left now is for McCarty to brace for the inevitable wave of emotions that will come with stepping onto the field at Red Bull Arena.
"I'm sure the feelings are going to come rushing back, but I'll try to stay calm about it," McCarty told Goal. "The time I spent with the Red Bulls was the best time of my career, it's when I played my best and learned a lot about myself.
"All that said, I'm older now, I know what matters is stepping on the field and getting three important points on the road," McCarty said. "When the game ends I'll be sure to thank the fans for their support through the years, but [I'm] going there to win."
McCarty will return to Red Bull Arena as part of an improved Chicago Fire team that had one of the busiest and best offseasons in terms of improving their roster. The recent signing of German star Bastian Schweinsteiger was easily the most high profile of the Fire's big moves, but landing McCarty was major for a team that wanted the U.S. international for a while.
"We were after him for the last six months before we signed him," Fire coach Veljko Paunovic told Goal. "We were in talks, we spoke, he wasn't available. We had to create assets to make our offers more until we got to the point where Red Bull opened the door for negotiations and we got him. He was our target. We said this is the player we need because he's a competitor and a leader. He knows the league, has very good qualities as a midfielder and everything that comes with his character."
McCarty has looked every bit the same player who was an MLS Best XI selection with the Red Bulls, and he has established a quick understanding with Schweinsteiger.
"I've been happy with his readiness and competitiveness. He really adapted very well and very quickly, which was the only challenge we had," Paunovic said. "His adaptation, going through the frustration with the trade, he did very well."
McCarty insists that it only took him a day to come to grips with the business side of the trade, but made it clear it was how the Red Bulls handled the situation that was his biggest issue. The midfielder says the Red Bulls left him in the dark throughout the process, despite his standing as captain and the six seasons he'd spent with the club. McCarty revealed that the two sides have spoken and resolved any lingering unhappiness.
"It was a tough thing to do from an emotional standpoint, but a thing that we were clear, as an organization, that we needed to do," Marsch said at training Wednesday. "It's a day for the fans to appreciate Dax, for Dax to appreciate the fans. For Dax to get to see the people that meant a lot to him."
As both McCarty and Marsch are quick to point out, the main focus on Saturday isn't McCarty's return, but the key Eastern Conference clash and the three points at stake. The Red Bulls are pushing to regain the top spot in the East, while the Fire are looking to record their first away win of the season.
There will be plenty of battles all over the field, but the one that will garner the most attention is McCarty's dual with Sacha Kljestan. The long-time teammates were one of the best midfield tandems in the league in 2015 and 2016, but now they will be facing each other in a battle that will go a long way toward determining Saturday's winner.
"We had a great partnership in the midfield. I really loved playing with him," Kljestan said of McCarty. "I think him and I made each other better players on the field as teammates, but I think we also made each other better as opponents in practice every day. When we had to play against each other in practice I always knew it was going to be a tough game. I always knew I'd get his best. Now it's going to get put to the test in the real thing for 90 minutes with three points on the line."
"Sacha is the obviously the brains behind everything they do," McCarty said. "I have a lot of respect for Sacha and his ability to change a game. His vision is unbelievable. He's got a great motor. When games get tough, and there's a lot of pressure, he's the guy you want on the ball.
"There's going to be a lot of pressure for us to make sure we're aware of where he is at all times because he can make Brad [Wright-Phillips] the most dangerous player in the league. If you can limit the opportunities Sacha has to play passes to Brad and their wingers you're going to have a successful day at the office, but that's easier said than done."
"It's funny how that worked out," McCarty said. "I know I'll try to stick around after the match and say thank you to the fans, and then also spend time with my good friends on the (Red Bulls), hopefully with three points in my pocket."