Saturday's USMNT draw with Chile served a few purposes. Most of them involved Bob Bradley and his nonstop need to evaluate, cull, and refine the National Team talent pool, with an eye towards meaningful competition this year and the 2014 World Cup well down the road. We can only hope that Bradley and his staff gained useful insight with what happened at the Home Depot Center; at the very least several players stood out, causing every armchair analyst from here to Anchorage to draw conclusions as to who should remain in the picture and whose name should be marked out with permanent ink. Bradley's process might differ, but he'll essentially do the same thing.
But by the final whistle, it was clear that Saturday's game had an ancillary benefit that had nothing to do with the fortunes of the USMNT.
One player's performance buoyed the spirits of an entire MLS fan base. In other words, Dax McCarty made DC United fans smile.
With only a whiff of hyperbole attached, it must be said that is no small thing. United fans haven't had much to smile about recently, both because of the team's poor performances on the field and the ongoing stadium saga off it. If you root for a former MLS powerhouse with a muddied future and nowhere to go but up on the field, it might be tough to find rays of light in the prevailing darkness. McCarty's performance in LA is a welcomed one because of what it might portend for 2011.
McCarty went the full 90 against Chile, showing a deft touch, a high work rate, and an ability to find teammates and keep his cool in a match marked by its hectic nature. While most of his teammates (particularly in the first half) struggled to get up to speed, McCarty exhibited an ability to adjust.
Finishing rock bottom in 2010 means that any perceived improvement in United's squad is reason for hope. The coaching search was mishandled publicly, but ended with a choice most fans like. It's Ben Olsen's team now, minus the interim handcuffs, meaning that United should at least put forth an effort worthy of respect from match to match. After watching too many games last season that lacked for passion and commitment, an improvement in that area will go a long way in re-engaging disillusioned fans. McCarty and his style - dogged, determined, full of heart and capable of excellence - is a perfect fit. There's every reason to believe that McCarty is capable of picking up the legacy of his club-legend coach.
That alone might be enough for United fans to get excited about the new season. McCarty is easy to like. Only 23, he carries himself like a natural leader. He sets an example with his play, one that will serve United well in the center of the field and with impressionable players dotting the lineup. Everything about Dax McCarty is on the upswing, making this the perfect time for United to get him. What a bit of fortune that he practically fell into their laps; with a new attitude at the club embodied by Olsen and McCarty, optimism is not only possible, it's justified.
A bit of legitimate hope for on the field success won't offset all of the anxious feelings surrounding the continuing stadium uncertainty, but it should be a much needed positive distraction. There hasn't been much to be positive about in the land of United; by giving the fans of his new team a reason to smile, Dax McCarty made a difference before ever donning the uniform.