Dax on Dax: Atlanta’s McCarty Talks Open Cup Love, Getting Old & the Rarity of Finals

The veteran midfielder guided a youthful Atlanta United side through the early stages of the 2024 Open Cup – and now has his sights set on lifting the historic trophy for a first time.
By: Jonah Fontela
Dax McCarty on the field during an Atlanta United match
Dax McCarty on the field during an Atlanta United match

“I’d tell the Dax of Then to maybe appreciate the opportunity a little bit more,” Dax McCarty said of his first Open Cup Final, way back in 2007 with FC Dallas, when he was still what he calls an “arrogant” teenager. “We’re talking 17 years ago and I thought I’d be playing in a Final every year.

“But the Dax of Now, well, he realizes, “sh*t, that is not the case,” said the player, who still has a youthful gleam in his eye but, at 37, is in the late, leafy autumn of his playing career. “I lost that Open Cup Final and I lost one MLS Cup Final – and I haven’t been back to either.”

There are lots of ways to define success. McCarty’s lack of Open Cup and MLS Cup trophies, over the course of a nearly two-decade career, is a fact. So is his status among the pantheon of MLS’ best-ever holding midfielders – and a pair of Supporters’ Shields with the New York Red Bulls. The general esteem he’s held in by teammates and opponents alike speaks its own kind of truth. Now with Atlanta United, his sixth MLS club, he’s aiming at finally lifting a trophy he holds close to his heart.

“I love the Open Cup; I’ve always loved the Open Cup,” said McCarty, who’s three wins away from lifting American soccer’s oldest prize and going one step farther than he did as a 19-year-old with FC Dallas in his first full year as a pro. “I love the history of the tournament and how it’s a pain in the ass going to these lower-division sides and having to figure out how to get through them and move on.”

Old Man Dax & the Atlanta Kids

The first two games of Atlanta United’s 2024 Open Cup campaign saw a lot of fresh faces called up from the academy. That’s a necessity in an increasingly cramped calendar, and with the natural squad rotation employed by many MLS sides in the early stages of our annual tournament. And in among that flock of young guns, McCarty was the old steady head – the calming influence and occasional firefighter.

The Round of 32 game, in Kennesaw, Georgia against third-division Charlotte Independence, began with an “oh-crap moment.” McCarty, who had more Open Cup appearances (22) than all of his teammates on the day combined, laid a loose ball back near the edge of the opponents’ penalty area that fell to the feet of an Independence player. A lightning counter-attack ensued as the huffing-and-puffing McCarty gave desperate chase for a full 80 yards before committing a foul and receiving a yellow card for his troubles. “Ok, well, not a great start to the tournament for me.”

McCarty contests a ball during a USMNT match
McCarty contests a ball during a USMNT match
McCarty – a 2017 Concacaf Gold Cup Champion – in one of 35 USMNT caps

It was an understandable blip in an otherwise outstanding performance. McCarty was the metronome. He controlled the midfield, and all the patterns of play, in a 3-0 win that could have been “four or five.”

He put in the same kind of performance in the next round, at the center of everything good his MLS side produced on the road against second-division Charleston Battery. It was a game that he admits Atlanta United were lucky to survive. Goalless after 120 minutes of play, the 2019 Open Cup Champions needed a penalty shootout to see off the home side.

McCarty in a tense 2024 Open Cup Round of 16 game against the Charleston Battery
McCarty in a tense 2024 Open Cup Round of 16 game against the Charleston Battery
McCarty in a tense 2024 Open Cup Round of 16 game against the Charleston Battery

“They were better than us in the first half, before we started to grow into the game. You have to have heart and grit, and some stones to rise to the occasion in games like that,” he said, pointing to goalkeeper Josh Cohen’s save in the shootout as one of his “favorite all-time moments” in the Open Cup.

“You find out the guys who are killers, who have confidence and who aren’t going to hide from the game or shrink out there,” added McCarty, who also singled out 19-year-old Alan Carleton and 21-year-old Matt Edwards for “not being afraid of the big moment” in a game that was one penalty kick (4-5) away from turning into a dramatic Cupset.

Gritty,” said McCarty when asked for a word that best defines our U.S. Open Cup – straight knockout in format and comprised of every level of American soccer from the top-tier pros of MLS all the way down to amateur Sunday Leaguers. “Look up gritty in the dictionary and the Open Cup should be there because it’s all about survival.”

When McCarty, who’s loved a physical midfield scrap since his young days, calls Open Cup games against lower-level teams “lose-lose” propositions, he’s simply being honest. “If you win, well you’re supposed to and no one pats you on the back,” he said with a chuckle. “If you lose, it’s catastrophic.”

Dax McCarty in his days with Nashville SC from 2020 to 2023
Dax McCarty in his days with Nashville SC from 2020 to 2023
Dax McCarty in his days with Nashville SC from 2020 to 2023

Even with that professional peril in place, McCarty likes the high stakes of the Open Cup, the potential for little teams to do great big things on any given day. Decent people, the kind who respect competition and merit, always love an underdog. “That’s what our game is all about,” he insisted. “The little teams getting a chance to knock off the big boys.”

He expects nothing less than that same grit and battle against Indy Eleven in the Quarterfinal, back at Atlanta United’s early round home-away-from-home of Kennesaw State University. “It will be tough, there’s no getting around that,” he said of the threat posed by the Indianapolis-based side, currently third in the USL Championship’s eastern conference.

“There’s nothing easy about these kinds of Open Cup games,” he said. “And it means a lot to me because I’m old and I don’t know how much longer I have to play.”

A Man on a Medium

McCarty’s honesty, his frankness on any number of topics, has been one of the consistent delights of anyone following his long career closely. Joining twitter (he refuses to call it X) in 2011 to “make fun of Chris Pontius” [his teammate at D.C. United who helped him set up his account] he was an early advocate of athletes speaking their minds and showing the human being lurking behind the competitor.

“You could interact with people and show a different side of yourself and it brought me joy,” said McCarty, who’s still active (and still hilarious) on the platform. “It was a way to show that not you’re just some dumb jock running around chasing a ball, but a person, who’s maybe a little bit kooky.”

McCarty and Lionel Messi go for a ball during a match
McCarty and Lionel Messi go for a ball during a match
McCarty has amassed over 400 league caps in his long MLS career

There’s something refreshing, and a little raw around the edges, about the specific kind of honesty that comes with age. With facing up to the ends of things. “The Open Cup is a competition where I've tasted a Final and lost it at home, way back in 2007 in Dallas,” said McCarty, now looking ahead to the possibilities for his Atlanta United who’ve struggled in league play this year and might just see the Open Cup as a best chance for silverware. “I want to win it because it’s valuable.”

The Dax of 2007 was “trying to prove himself.” He was “selfish” and “eager to get his name known and make money, and get people talking,” McCarty admitted. The Dax of Today is different. He’s the dad of a five-year-old son, Callum Jerry, a VIP guest in the locker room after the last two rounds of the Open Cup.

“Every player gave him a high-five,” McCarty said with a big smile. “At this stage I’m just eager to make my family proud. You get a little outside yourself in those big moments.

“I’m at the stage where I just appreciate every training session, every game that much more – every win too,” concluded McCarty, now just three wins from lifting the trophy that got away all those years ago. “I want that feather in my cap. I want that galvanizing moment, that trophy, for the team.”

Fontela is editor-in-chief of usopencup.com. Follow him at @jonahfontela on X/Twitter.