Former midfielder could be the answer to the defensive woes for the New England Revolution
By Kevin Koczwara
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Omar Salgado pulled down Stephen McCarthy in the Revolution box just before halftime. The Vancouver Whitecaps player was frustrated with McCarthy’s marking on the previous corner kick and it boiled over into a fit of childish play. But Stephen McCarthy was having none of it.The 6’5” newly converted center back for the New England Revolution began screaming at the Whitecaps forward. The two had to be separated and referee blew the halftime whistle.
New England went into the locker room with a 3-1 lead, which would stretch to 4-1 in the second half after Lee Nguyen scored a magnificent goal, and all the momentum. Stephen McCarthy’s play at the back was one of the main reasons.
“I was marking him and still marking him and he got frustrated with that and after the play he grabbed me threw me down and I think it was a frustrated move by him. I wasn’t happy about it because I’ve had shoulder problems and I don’t want to be thrown down like that. It was just one of those plays,” said McCarthy about the incident with Salgado at the end of the first half of last night’s game.
McCarthy, who is usually reserved in press interviews and seems to shy away from attention (from what I’ve noticed in my time covering the team), stood up and took note after Vancouver carved out the New England defense in the fifth minute for the game’s opening goal. The converted midfielder was having none of it and he stuck to his man for the rest of the game.
The play on Salgado was just one incident where McCarthy, and the rest of the Revolution backline, shut down the Whitecaps to the point of boiled over fury. Vancouver’s attacking players would end up with three yellow cards on the night, including Salgado who got a yellow in the 61st minute, mostly because New England’s defense stifled any forward movement. And the line was being led by McCarthy.
“We played as a unit tonight. The entire team played defense. Clyde [Simms] was big time in the middle. [McCarthy] had a huge game,” said Soares after the game. “I thought he was keeping the backline together basically, we were all following off his energy. It was a great performance. That’s how you sum it up.”
The game was a microcosm of the year for McCarthy. The former University of North Carolina stand-out came into Major League Soccer last year as a central midfielder, but he was converted to center back by Jay Heaps at the beginning of the season. Early on it was a struggle for him, much like the goal in the fifth minute against Vancouver was. He recovered and showed signs of what Heaps saw in him when he decided to convert him to a defender.
“Stephen McCarthy has ups-and-downs because he’s a second year player, but it’s his first year playing the position. I think he has all the attributes to be an amazing center back. Every week you see glimpses of it but it’s still a learning process,” said Jay Heaps after the game
McCarthy is still learning a new position, but he’s quickly established himself as Soares’ partner. The quick ascent to the top of the Revolution pecking order at center back for McCarthy couldn’t have come at a better time either.
New England signed John Lozano from Colombia to step into the starting role at the beginning of the season, but he’s looked like a bag of nerves in his few appearances. Darrius Barnes has been relegated to backup everything on the backline and hasn’t had the same form, or opportunities, that made him a stand out as a rookie a few season ago. That leaves McCarthy as the only other player to stand in alongside Soares.
McCarthy knows he still has plenty of room for improvement. He’s still feeling out his new position. He’s still learning the nuances of being the last line of defense. But he’s making progress.
“I’m feeling good. I’m feeling a lot more confident. I’m figuring out my strengths and weaknesses and how to play to those,” said McCarthy. “I think that was a big learning curve for me because I had never played back there and I might have done some things differently that I would do in the midfield that I shouldn’t do in the back. Now I’m figuring it out for myself what’s best for me back there and what’s going to help the team best.”
McCarthy is helping a team that struggled with finding the right mix of center backs for a few seasons now by stepping in and partnering with Soares, someone he is close to off the field. It’s the first time in a few years that the Revolution have a solid center back pairing that shows promise going forward. And that’s something Soares is excited about.
“[McCarthy’s] a beast. He’s great with the ball. He has a lot of skill sets that guys his size don’t have. Then he’s got that intensity as well. He’s really a great center back and he’s going to continue to get better and it’s going to be scary one day how good he’s going to be,” said Soares. “I’m glad to be playing next to him. We have a great relationship. We have fun together. We have fun on the field. We have fun together in the weight room. It’s fun to be out there.”
It should be fun for Revolution fans to watch the partnership grow. Last year McCarthy struggled to settle into the midfield and keep up with the pace of Major League Soccer. Now, though, he looks to have found the right place for him to excel. And New England looks to have finally found the defensive bedrock its been missing for a few seasons now.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at email@example.com.