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Red Bulls vs. Fire really is about Jesse Marsch vs. Dax McCarty

It’s not about revenge, it’s about the philosophy of how to run a soccer club.

MLS: U.S. Open Cup Final-New York Red Bulls at Sporting KC Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

No soccer game can ever be distilled into a single matchup, but some offseason drama and a long, winding MLS campaign has led to a playoff showdown that almost feels scripted: Dax McCarty vs. Jesse Marsch.

When the Chicago Fire host the New York Red Bulls in the first round of the MLS Cup Playoffs Wednesday night (8:30 p.m. ET, FS1), McCarty will be at the heart of midfield for the home side, facing off against the team he spent the best years of his career with. Marsch, the coach who engaged in a power struggle with his now former boss to get McCarty traded, will be watching his team execute a gameplan designed to harass McCarty for 90 minutes.

McCarty can prove his old coach wrong. Marsch’s new starters can prove their manager right. And we get a perfect platform to debate one of soccer’s great problems: Should a team operate based on system first, talent second, or talent first, system second?

How we got here

In 2015, New York Red Bulls sporting director Ali Curtis fired popular and successful head coach Mike Petke — who won the club its first trophy and also played for the Red Bulls — and replaced him with Marsch. "It was a very difficult decision, especially given Mike’s service to the club as a player and as well as a coach," Curtis said about the decision. "At the end of the day, it is my decision and I own it ... This decision wasn’t about getting rid of Mike, it was more about bringing in Jesse Marsch.” Curtis went on to cite Marsch’s openness to new analytics and ideas about youth development as reasons he was hired.

Curtis was so confident about his decision that he attended a town hall meeting for Red Bulls fans that he knew would be filled with anger. He took all the heat as they pelted him with angry questions and told him to “shut the f—k up.”

Ultimately, Curtis was vindicated. The Red Bulls won Supporters’ Shield in 2015, then finished on top of the Eastern Conference again in 2016, with Marsch garnering praise for getting his team to perform consistently above its talent level.

But this offseason, Curtis and Marsch had disagreements about player personnel. One of those disagreements was about McCarty, the team’s captain and a consistent high-level performer over six seasons — Curtis wanted to keep him, while Marsch was ready to move on. Ultimately, Curtis was let go and McCarty was traded. The Red Bulls didn’t get any players or picks in return. Just Allocation Money.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Chicago Fire Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

That money hasn’t been used to improve the squad. The only players Red Bulls have brought in since trading McCarty have been internal promotions, loanees and bit-part players. Allocation Money rolls over from season to season, but so far, the Red Bulls traded McCarty for nothing.

Style at the expense of safety

McCarty wasn’t jettisoned because Marsch doesn’t rate him as a player. He was sent packing because he’s not a perfect fit for Marsch’s playing style. And while Marsch will change formations based on opponent and the personnel he has available, he’s an ideologue when it comes to his underlying philosophy — he called it "transition football times 100” in an interview with Matt Pentz for an article at ESPN FC. Marsch also talked in that interview about his commitment to finding the right players for his tactics.

"As a football coach, I'm very style-based. I believe firmly that it's important to evaluate what kind of players we're putting into our team. We can't play the way that we play without the right kind of players and personalities ... We don't have room for people that don't want to play the way that we play."

McCarty is far from a perfect fit for a team that wants to play up-tempo at all costs. If McCarty has one great skill, it’s figuring out how to mitigate risk. He’s smart enough to pick an early long pass when the moment is perfect, but McCarty is arguably the best defensive midfielder in MLS at retaining the ball and slowing play down.

This does not describe McCarty’s former backup Sean Davis or Red Bulls youth product Tyler Adams, who have both bought in completely to Marsch’s philosophy. McCarty was traded because Marsch thought those two were ready to take his place. So far, results have been mixed.

Adams, just 18, is unquestionably one of the brightest talents in the USMNT player pool. But he’s played more wingback than central midfield in the back half of the season, thanks to injuries and a formation change. Davis has adapted well to Marsch’s switch to an unorthodox 3-3-3-1 setup, but had a poor first half of the season. The Red Bulls seriously could have used a player like McCarthy in August and September, when they went eight straight games without winning, culminating in three consecutive matches in which Marsch’s team conceded three goals.

Wait, 3-3-3-1?

Yep. The Red Bulls haven’t used the same personnel two games in a row, so it’s impossible to guess their exact preferred lineup, but it looks something like this.

Marsch took a winding road to get here. After winter rumors that he would become the new manager of sister club Red Bull Salzburg, Marsch committed to staying for at least one more year, and to using the 4-2-2-2 formation that Salzburg and RB Leipzig used to much success. It went poorly — New York Red Bulls simply didn’t have the personnel for it.

Marsch made a slight adjustment, changing to a 4-2-3-1 formation that suited his players better, but still used the same high tempo principles. Results were fine, but injuries put Marsch in a bad spot. Center backs Gideon Baah and Aurelien Collin, along with winger Mike Grella, suffered season-ending injuries.

Counter-intuitively, Marsch’s solution was to play more center backs instead of fewer. His fullbacks learned how to play as the outside defenders in a back three — roles usually reserved for athletic central defenders — and he crowded the middle with attacking midfielders who press high up the pitch. The growing pains were severe, but Red Bulls closed out their season with seven points from their last three matches, with the lone draw being a decent 0-0 result away to Atlanta United, the second-best attacking team by goals scored in MLS.

Marsch for USMNT?

If you’re just a real MLS head and haven’t been paying attention to the international game, the United States men’s national team failed to qualify for the World Cup. It was a big deal. Bruce Arena got fired and everything. Now, U.S. Soccer is on the lookout for a coach who can turn things around, preferably one with some ideas about how to create a youth-to-senior pipeline and play a more progressive brand of soccer. Marsch might be their guy.

He’s a popular choice among media and analysts in the event USSF wants to hire someone who has experience with American soccer. For example: Ted Knutson, Matt Doyle, Grant Wahl and just about everyone else he works with at SI. Marsch is widely praised for having a strong philosophy and sticking to it, something he openly criticized Jurgen Klinsmann’s teams for lacking in 2015.

"I think that the tricky part with entering a new cycle is trying to look at new players, but also still maintain the identity that you want to be. I appreciate that they’ve looked at a lot of new players, but I’m not sure what the identity is of what they’re trying to build there. That would be my main question mark. It looks to me too much like a bunch of guys kind of thrown on the field ... No matter when you bring in new personnel, there still needs to be an identity to what the team is, and that’s not easy. I know, because you get guys coming from all these different areas and you have a few days to put the team together, but somehow there’s got to be a consistent message and way to play no matter who’s involved."

A strong MLS Cup Playoff run would only strengthen the calls for Marsch to get an interview. But Wednesday night’s game against Chicago could also serve to remind us of his weaknesses as a coach. Marsch got rid of McCarty, one of his best players, and was OK with getting nothing in return. The USMNT does not have enough talent for a coach to be able to disregard its top players simply because they aren’t perfect system fits.

The Red Bulls’ loss is the Fire’s gain

Last season, the Chicago Fire were utterly hopeless. Their 31 points and minus-16 goal differential were both the worst in the league. But from the first game McCarty started in the center of the park this March, they looked like a different team — confident, competent, and organized.

MLS: Orlando City SC at Chicago Fire Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

McCarty is far from the only reason for Chicago’s turnaround this season, but his influence can’t be discounted. Juninho didn’t play in that opener against Columbus Crew, golden boot winner Nemanja Nikolic didn’t score or assist, and Bastian Schweinsteiger hadn’t been signed yet.

“He’s great to have him in your back, behind you so he covers a lot and he also understands the game very well,” Schweinsteiger said of McCarty after the German star arrived and the two started playing together. “He knows exactly where to pass the ball, when to turn and when to keep the ball, so you can really see that he’s experienced.”

Juninho and Schweinsteiger were both injured late in the season, leaving McCarty to partner with 23-year-old second-year player Drew Conner and 18-year-old rookie Djordje Mihailovic in the center of the park over the last six games. He’s held the midfield together, as Chicago went 3-2-1 over that stretch, doing well enough to clinch a home playoff game without McCarty’s midfield mates.

And that brings us to Wednesday

Dax McCarty does not like the Dax vs. Red Bulls revenge narrative.

“It’s just another game, honestly,” John Wilkinson reported McCarty as saying on Tuesday. “I’ve already played them twice this year. The whole, like, revenge storyline and narrative, it’s just tired; it’s a lazy narrative for me because we’ve already played them twice.”

This is true. And in those two games, Chicago has failed to win. McCarty was on the pitch for a 2-1 Red Bulls win in New Jersey this April, and for a 1-1 draw in Chicago this September. It also makes sense that McCarty wants to win a playoff game more than he wants to stick it to Marsch.

But McCarty would be naive to think that the playoff game between the Fire and Red Bulls is an irrelevant to the narrative about his career — or Marsch’s. McCarty was not traded for business reasons. He was not a cap casualty. He wasn’t even moved to make room for another player. Marsch just didn’t prefer McCarty’s style of play, so much so that he was willing to fight his boss over getting rid of him.

McCarthy’s exit from the Red Bulls gets at the heart of one of soccer’s great philosophical questions: Is it better to build a system around your most talented players, or to have a preferred system that dictates your other decisions? Wednesday’s match won’t give us a definitive answer, but it’s rare that we get to see such a perfect case study in action.