Dax McCarty: The Chicago Fire Are Still Favorites For The World Cup

We spoke with Fire and USMNT midfielder Dax McCarty about the MLS season, playing FIFA and the future of U.S. soccer.

It was a wild ride for American midfielder Dax McCarty in 2017. In January, McCarty was recalled by the national team for the first time since 2011, but he was subsequently shocked to learn that after five and a half seasons with the New York Red Bulls, he’d been dealt to the Chicago Fire before the start of the new campaign. 

McCarty then helped the USMNT triumph at the Gold Cup, starting in two group stage games and appearing in five games overall, including a late substitute appearance in the final against Jamaica.

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The Florida native was then instrumental in Chicago’s remarkable turnaround, helping the club finish third in the Supporters’ Shield race, but he also experienced the pain of that night in Trinidad and Tobago (McCarty was an unused sub) and a 4-0 drubbing against his former side in the first round of the MLS Cup playoffs. 

A midfielder of rare technique, vision and tactical discipline in the U.S. player pool, McCarty has featured near the top of ESPN’s MLS Peer Poll with regards to the most underrated player in the league (he was voted most underrated in ’17, second-most underrated in ’18). 

The18 got the chance to speak with Dax while he was out in Los Angeles for a FIFA 18 World Cup Activation event. Here’s what the midfield maestro had to say regarding the upcoming World Cup, playing FIFA and the future of the USMNT. 

Do the Chicago Fire have a good chance of lifting the 2018 World Cup?

Dax McCarty: [laughing] Yeah, I think we do, I think we do. I think the favorites for the World Cup are going to be us, Argentina, France, Germany and Spain. So some serious competition for that trophy.

You hear a lot about players trying to combat boredom between games while away at major international tournaments. Having spent three weeks at last summer’s Gold Cup, was FIFA a popular activity amongst U.S. players?

McCarty: Yes. Absolutely. Whenever you have downtime, whenever you’re at long tournaments like the Gold Cup, the World Cup or Copa America, the only thing players do in their downtime is play FIFA, because you have to stay off your feet, you have to rest and recover between training sessions and what’s the next best thing to do? The next best thing to do is play FIFA and practice. 

As an athlete, you have to have that internal competition and drive. I think athletes in general are hyper-competitive people, and so when we’re not on the field, we get that competition from playing FIFA. Certainly in our downtime — I wasn’t one, I would play a game every now and then — you have guys that can play five, six hours on end. It’s truly amazing. 

Who was the best on the squad?

McCarty: Ale Bedoya was pretty good. You have the young kids. The young guys are pretty good. You have Jordan Morris and Cristian Roldan, those are guys that are just unbelievable at video games.

Is there much banter between the players over their FIFA ratings? They’re really killing you with that finishing rating, Dax …

McCarty: They’re really not doing me any favors with that. There’s always banter with the ratings. There’s always banter with the pace rating. If one guy thinks he’s a little bit faster than he really is, he’s always going to be a little bit frustrated if his pace isn’t what it’s up to. I’ve actually seen guys, because their pace ratings were different on FIFA, they’ve actually raced each other in real life, which is hilarious.

The FIFA 18 World Cup update has Messi at 94 and Cristiano Ronaldo at 95. Where do you stand in the Messi vs. Ronaldo debate?

McCarty: That’s wrong for me. I think that, if we’re basing the FIFA ratings out of 100, 100 being the perfect player, then for me, and this is the whole Messi-Ronaldo debate, Leo Messi should be at about a 98 with Cristiano Ronaldo at about a 96. That’s where I would put them.

I don’t think there’s any perfect player in the world, because if there was, he would be a one-man team and be able to do anything he wanted. For me, Lionel Messi is as close as you can get to a perfect player. He’s an alien.

What do you make of the midfield ratings in the game?

McCarty: I’m a little biased and a little upset that defensive midfielders don’t get as much love. I know that Toni Kroos is rated very highly, but I consider Toni Kroos more of a number eight, more of a box-to-box midfielder. He’s more of a facilitator, more of a passer. His passing ability and his vision are unbelievable, but he’s not a real tough, tackle-winning number six.

I’d like to see where people like N’Golo Kante and Luka Modric rank. For me, Modric is a fantastic midfielder, and I hope he’s rated highly.

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Having watched the USMNT vs. France friendly, what did you make of former New York Red Bulls teammate Tyler Adams?

McCarty: He’s a guy that has a really bright future. You can see the way that he plays: He covers a ton of ground, he’s one of the fittest guys I’ve ever seen and he’s got a tremendous mentality for a young player. He never wants to lose. He’s not scared of anything. He’s not afraid of big moments, and you could see that. Playing in France against France, playing against their, essentially, World Cup starters the week before they go to play in the World Cup, and he showed no fear. That’s the type of kid he is; that’s the type of player he is.

I’d like to selfishly think that I had a little bit to do with helping groom that mentality of his, but the truth is that he’s had that since he signed as a pro. I like to call him a little miniature terminator because it seems like the guy never stops. He never stops, he’s fit, he’s got an engine for days and he’s tough as nails. I think he’s got a really bright future ahead of him, and I hope he’s got a really bright future in a U.S. jersey.

What about the starting midfield trio of Adams, Wil Trapp and Weston McKennie on the whole?

McCarty: I think that the midfield trio that played against France did really well. They played their roles to perfection. I’ve got a lot of admiration for Wil Trapp. We play similar positions on the field, and he’s a lot younger than I am, but the way he sees the game is the way that I see the game. He’s a great passer and he’s a tremendous leader.

Me being a captain of the past three clubs I’ve been at, I have a high appreciation for guys that see the game well and guys that are leaders and guys that want responsibility in the biggest moments. That’s the kind of player Wil is. 

In terms of Weston McKennie, I don’t know too much about him. I’ve seen him play a handful of times, and I’ve always come away pretty impressed by his ability and his potential. He’s been getting good minutes for a team that just qualified for the Champions League at Schalke. You don’t do that unless you’re a very talented player, so I think that the central midfield for the U.S. is gonna be OK for many years to come.

I think we’re very deep at that position, and that’s a position I’m not worried about.

It’s been a frustrating start for the Chicago Fire after 15 games. Where do you see the club going from here?

McCarty: The season has been very inconsistent for us. We’ve had some really good wins, and we’ve had some bad losses. I think that when you have a lot of turnover like our club had in the offseason and you have a lot of injuries to start off with, you’re never gonna find the consistency that you need to be one of the top teams in Major League Soccer.

With that being said, with how frustrating the season has been, we’re still only a couple points out of a playoff spot. I don’t think we’re gonna be challenging for a Supporters’ Shield anytime soon, unless we get healthy and hit a really rich vein of form and start piling on win after win, but I do think we have a team that can be successful and make the playoffs. Once you make the playoffs anything can happen. 

We got a little taste of it last year. We made the playoffs, we had a great regular season and were third overall in MLS, but then we kind of petered out in the playoffs. We didn’t do very well. We got our butts kicked in the playoffs, quite frankly, by a team that was very experienced and just better than us. I think hopefully we can make the playoffs, we can use that experience from last year to be successful and make a deep run and hopefully try to win MLS Cup.

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So who will you be cheering for in Russia?

McCarty: I’m pulling for the Cinderella story. I’m pulling for Iceland. I wanna see them do well, I wanna see them get out of the group, I wanna see the Viking Clap. I wanna pull for them because they’re such a fun story, but I’m also pulling for Argentina. 

I’m a huge Messi fan. He’s the greatest player that I’ve ever seen; he’s the greatest player of all time. There are some people that will say he’s not because he hasn’t won a World Cup, so I think, selfishly, I’d love to see him win a World Cup and cement his spot as No. 1 on top of the list of the greatest players ever. 

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