Bigsoccerhead: On and Off the Record with Some Red Bulls
It’s Sunday, and I find myself striking that “dangerous” balance between business and pleasure as I discuss the merits of tattoos with Dax McCarty at a rooftop barbeque in Brooklyn.
McCarty, who is sporting the hipster look that he’s accustomed his Instagram followers to, finds it amusing that someone had once mistaken my tattoo of a soccer player for two stickmen engaged in intercourse. The anecdote serves to confirm his decision not to get one himself – a choice his girlfriend agrees with given his predisposition to freckles.
I met McCarty and his Red Bulls teammate, Connor Lade, just a few hours earlier at an Adidas event at the Upper 90 soccer store in Brooklyn, where I was supposed to interview them after they finished promoting the brand’s newest footwear with a select group of youth soccer players, as well as Zachary Rubin, the store’s manager. Rubin, who’s been a staple in the New York’s soccer community for some time, had set up a small obstacle course that the youth players had to navigate as quickly as possible. The winner would receive an autographed Red Bulls jersey, and tickets to a game.
After instructing the youth players about the obstacle course rules, Rubin charged McCarty with timekeeping, handing him a stopwatch. Not one to be left as a passive spectator, Lade made his way to a small goal in the middle of the obstacle course that the youth players had to chip a soccer ball into, and sat down, becoming the event’s de facto ball-boy. Both Red Bulls were comfortable in this milieu. McCarty frequently blurted out a mixture of encouragements and taunts as the participants made their way through the course, whilst Lade made a series of “acrobatic” dives in order to retrieve wayward soccer balls. Clearly, the two were having fun, but more importantly, they understood that it was their responsibility to create a comfortable atmosphere. “When people see you, they want to see another side to you,” McCarty told me. “And the [joking around] is reflective of a positive and happy locker room. If we were pissed off at each other, we probably wouldn’t be having as much fun.”
Neither McCarty, nor Lade, embody the intimidating personas of celebrity athletes. In fact, in person, McCarty is a far cry from the battle-ready midfielder we see week-in-and-week-out in games, while Lade could very well be mistaken for one of the older youth players participating in the promotion, save for his athletic build. Both players are at very different points in their careers. McCarty has arguably been the most consistent Red Bulls player this season, and many think he could have made Jurgen Klinsmann’s preliminary Gold Cup squad had he not been sidelined for a couple of weeks with an injury. The omission was obviously disappointing, but McCarty regards it more as a challenge than a setback. “As a pro, you’re always trying to get to that level,” he says. “The only thing you can do is to continue to work hard. If you play well for your club team - that translates.”
McCarty is correct in theory. However, the reality is that one player’s standout performances don’t necessarily mean that the team is firing on all cylinders. Although the Red Bulls currently have the MLS’ fourth best record, they’ve played more games than almost every other team in the league, and the recent home defeat to the Vancouver Whitecaps highlighted some of the problems plaguing the team. For McCarty, the answer is simple: consistency. “While we respect Vancouver, we know we should have won that game. Throughout the season you take your licks, your knocks – they’re always going to happen – but at the end of the day, the main thing we have to improve on is being more consistent.”
Much of the Red Bulls punditry has been quick to point out that consistency is going to be hard to come by if the team’s midfield core (comprised of Tim Cahill, Juninho Pernambucano, and McCarty himself) keeps getting shuffled. McCarty disagrees: “great players always bring a high level to the team. Knowing each other’s tendencies is always going to take time. All three of us do a good job of bringing different qualities to the team.” The shuffling is also a sign that the Red Bulls have more roster options now than they did a year ago. “We’re so much deeper than we were last season, and it’s the quality of depth that is going to help us in the latter part of the season.”
It’s exactly that roster depth that has caused Lade’s season to be so much different from the last, when the winger made the jump from the Red Bulls Academy, and was signed as a homegrown player. Under Hans Backe, Lade was a regular fixture on the team sheet, but with first year coach, Mike Petke, the New Jersey native has struggled to rack up minutes. So far this season, Petke has relied primarily on Jonny Steele and Eric Alexander to patrol the wings, and while neither has been particularly remarkable, they’ve delivered productive performances. Still, Lade has nothing but praise for his coach, who he claims always “takes his work home with him,” and tries to instill more determination in his players. “His overall passion is something we haven’t seen before. He’s so invested in the club, and he really bleeds New York Red Bulls.” That passion was evident when Petke fulminated (justifiably) against match officials for a botched penalty kick call in a home game versus the Columbus Crew, telling reporters that he had “his checkbook out and was ready for the MLS to fine [him].”
Lade’s diminished playing time has done little to blemish his popularity with Red Bulls fans. His likeness is one of the four that adorn one of the murals in the Upper 90 store. The other three are of McCarty, Thierry Henry, and Tim Cahill. Henry and Cahill are the team’s experienced designated players, and two of the figures Lade turns “to for leadership,” because “they’ve played at the highest level.” Lade’s choice may appear obvious, but in the world of soccer, veteran experience doesn’t always translate into effective leadership, especially when there is a massive salary discrepancy between players, as is the case with the Red Bulls (according to the MLS Players’ Union, Henry will be earning seventy times the salary that Lade makes).
Boasting impressive views of Brooklyn, Remy Cherin’s Clinton Hill apartment makes an ideal setting for a late spring rooftop barbeque. Cherin is a licensed FIFA players’ agent, and the founder of Remington Ellis Management, which represents a number of players, both in the MLS and abroad.
Wearing a tank top, fitted jeans (which are rolled above his ankles), and multicolored socks, Cherin doesn’t quite fit most people’s image of a FIFA agent, and one gets the impression that he truly enjoys hosting little events. After tending to the food and drinks, he makes his way around making sure everyone is comfortable, finally settling in a corner with Rubin, Lade, Ryan Meara, Brandon Barklage, and his wife.
After talking about real estate with McCarty (McCarty rents in the West Village and plans to renew his lease, even though he admits that the apartment suffers from a lack of natural light), and comparing notes about our college soccer experiences (his at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, and mine at Manhattan College), we both join the group, which is discussing other rooftops in the neighborhood. McCarty asks Cherin why his is not a big as one he points out. He also jokes that Henry has five rooftops, and teases that none of the other teammates present was invited to his party because the Frenchman doesn’t like them.
At one point, Barklage - who is referred to as Barks by most of the people at the barbeque - asks me what I do. When I tell him that I write about soccer, and that I sit directly behind the Red Bulls bench when I cover the team, he asks me if I think he looks unapproachable. The question is certainly a strange one; although, while many would have delivered the line awkwardly, Barklage asks it as if an answer in the affirmative would be met with a simple nod, and a promise that an attempt would be made to correct the first impression. I answer that he doesn’t, but I remark that he does tend to have a stern look on his face during games. “On the field I’m always locked-in,” he responds. Indeed, Barklage is locked-in one of the team’s most interesting starting-spot battles with Kosuke Kimura, with the Japanese only recently having gained a small advantage, after the American had seemingly all but cemented his place on the right side of the back-four.
As it gets dark, and the barbeque starts to empty, Meara lays out some chairs in a circle for us to sit. It is in the circle that the rapport between the players and Cherin really begins to manifest itself. Naturally, the conversation covers numerous topics, with McCarty and Meara (the latter striking an uncanny resemblance to Larry Bird, and an accent that shows traces of his Irish background) spending much of the time poking fun of everybody. For instance, after finding out that I played for Manhattan College, Meara proudly declares that he never lost to my alma mater in his four years at Fordham University (the two colleges are big rivals). Its Barklage, though, who becomes the preferred target, first for practicing pilates, and then for taking time during a boys’ get-away to call his wife (McCarty shows a picture documenting the moment of betrayal). Barklage’s wife, Brittany, is completely unfazed by the whole thing, telling me that she’s used to all their antics, and adds that she’s just looking forward to their honeymoon, if Barklage’s schedule ever permits.
With practice scheduled early the next morning one of the players suggests leaving. Much to Cherin’s disappointment, a quick survey of the Red Bulls schedule (Lade and Meara have it memorized) assures that it will be a while before he’s able to get his players back together for another soiree. His relationship with his players is such, that no one would be surprised if he knew their favorite ice cream flavors. As we exit, Cherin hugs everyone, and a few brotherly “I love yous,” are exchanged.
I leave the apartment impressed at the kinship I witnessed. After all, none of the players at the barbeque has been a member of the Red Bulls for long. I also wonder whether that sense of fraternity pervades the whole locker room, much of it comprised of foreign players. McCarty seems to think so. “It’s a really diverse group, but we’ve bonded quickly.”
Red Bulls fans will be hoping that the bonding drives the team to its first MLS Cup.