FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Stephen McCarthy wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about his preseason move to central defense.
“I hated center back before this season started,” McCarthy said after a recent training session.
See? Not so enthusiastic.
McCarthy’s animosity toward the position wasn’t entirely without justification. His whole life he’d been a central midfielder, but periodically throughout his playing career, his size – conservatively listed at 6-foot-5 – convinced coaches to try him out as a center back. Even former Revolution head coach Steve Nicol used McCarthy on the backline in a preseason match in 2011 before handing him 18 regular-season starts in midfield.
The problem, according to McCarthy, is that he wasn’t a very good center back.
That didn’t stop first-year head coach Jay Heaps from experimenting with the move once again this past preseason. With only three center backs on the roster, Heaps – a former defender himself – needed additional cover and decided to convert McCarthy, whom he’d watched closely as a member of the Revolution’s broadcast team in 2011.
The difference this time was that Heaps stuck with the decision despite McCarthy’s reservations and initial struggles. McCarthy trained exclusively with the center backs and made six preseason appearances in central defense, showing vast improvement along the way.
McCarthy’s improvement continued straight into the regular season as he started the opener against the San Jose Earthquakes and never looked back, making 28 appearances on the backline en route to earning Revolution Best Defender honors.
“They screwed that up,” McCarthy joked when asked about winning the award. “I can’t believe it. I’ve never been a defender before so I’m happy. I’m really happy. I’m sure a lot of the credit goes to the guys around me because they helped me more than I probably helped myself some games. It was a learning process and I feel blessed to have gotten that award.”
McCarthy reserved particular praise for fellow center back and 2011 SuperDraft selection A.J. Soares, whom he rooms with on the road and leans on for support both on and off the field. But credit also goes to Heaps, who had the foresight to stick with McCarthy even when the player himself questioned the move.
“[Winning Best Defender] shows that he’s fully committed to the position, he’s fully committed to learning and playing,” said Heaps. “Macca’s a smart soccer player. The transition isn’t easy because it’s a hard position to play, but I thought he adapted well. For him to play this well in his first year, I just hope that he continues to grow so we’re talking about this in his second and third years; that he just continues to get better.”
Progression requires commitment and belief, which McCarthy now has in spades. The player who “hated” center back 10 months ago now has a hard time seeing himself playing anywhere else.
“I’m all in,” McCarthy said. “It’s hard to see myself as a midfielder now; it’s weird … Now I enjoy [center back] and I think I could have a good future there. I want to do big things there and be the best defender in the league. I don’t want to just be a good defender; I want to be the best.”