A tall order

The following story was published in the Revolution’s “Match Day” program for the April 9 game against Real Salt Lake

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – As one of three children born to incredibly active parents, Stephen McCarthy has always had the genetic makeup necessary to be a professional athlete.

McCarthy’s mother, Katie, won the 1979 NJCAA cross-country skiing championship and also played collegiate volleyball at New Mexico State University. His father, Michael, runs marathons in his free time. Both encouraged their son’s athletic endeavors from a young age, particularly as Stephen increased his participation in the sport of soccer.

But perhaps the greatest physical gift McCarthy inherited from his parents – the trait which has seemingly defined him in the early stages of his professional soccer career – has little to do with athletic prowess. It’s not speed, stamina or balance.

It’s his height.

To put it bluntly, Stephen McCarthy is tall. Listed at a modest 6-foot-4 in the New England Revolution’s official media guide, the 22-year-old rookie is the tallest player on the club’s roster. Even amongst fellow professional athletes, McCarthy towers above his peers.

Unsurprisingly, McCarthy’s soaring stature has proven to be one of his greatest assets as a ball-winning central midfielder, particularly as he’s adjusted to the rough-and-tumble style of Major League Soccer.

“He’s obviously got size going for him, which is a huge plus in this league – a very physical league,” said central midfield partner Pat Phelan. “[His height] really helps our team out a lot on set pieces both offensively and defensively.

“Unless you can out-jump him, you have to position your body (appropriately),” Phelan said about trying to challenge McCarthy in the air. “You almost have to nudge him so neither of you win the ball, then hopefully you can get the second balls. It’s a tough feat, but it’s a positive for us that he’s on our team and we’re not playing against him.”

Ironically, McCarthy hasn’t always considered his size an advantage. While height is almost a necessity in sports like basketball and football, it can prove to be a drawback in a sport like soccer, which occasionally rewards power and strength but is often dominated by quickness and dexterity.

“I always thought [my height] was a disadvantage,” McCarthy said. “I would look at the best players in the world like (FC Barcelona’s Lionel) Messi and say, ‘Well, the best players are all tiny.’ Look at Spain’s team, look at Barcelona.

“But then you see a couple players who are huge – (Tottenham’s 6-foot-7 forward) Peter Crouch and (Manchester City’s 6-foot-4 midfielder) Patrick Vieira – and it’s always given me hope when I see those players who make it,” he continued. “For me, I think I’ve just tried to focus on the strengths of being tall – winning headers, being strong and trying to use that to my advantage.”

It’s safe to say McCarthy has made the most of his physical tools. Following a standout college career which spanned three seasons at Santa Clara University and one healthy season at the University of North Carolina, McCarthy was drafted in the second round (24th overall) of the 2011 MLS SuperDraft by the Revolution.

A string of impressive preseason performances forced head coach Steve Nicol to take notice, and McCarthy pushed his way into the Revolution’s starting lineup for the season opener against the LA Galaxy. The rookie was solid in his professional debut and was given a second straight start in the home opener against D.C. United.

The sudden rise up the Revolution’s depth chart surprised even McCarthy himself.

“Honestly, no. Not at all,” McCarthy chuckled when asked if he ever could’ve imagined starting the first two games of his professional career. “I have really close friends who were just drafted the same time as me and they’re not getting any chance to play. So I just feel blessed that I’m even getting the opportunity to step on the field.

“I really wasn’t expecting it,” he admitted. “I was excited for the Reserve League, I was excited to get some games in. Now that I’m getting the opportunity (with the first team), I’m just trying to take it in stride.”

While it’s easy to default to McCarthy’s size as the primary reason he’s proven successful, the soft-spoken rookie can attribute his achievements to so much more. After all, there are countless high school and collegiate athletes standing taller than McCarthy who’ve failed to make it on the professional stage.

Primary amongst McCarthy’s strengths is his technical ability in possession, an area in which the Revs have made a concerted effort to improve in 2011.

“I really try to focus on just keeping the ball,” said McCarthy. “I haven’t done it perfectly yet this season, but I like to see teams that play and keep the ball. When you keep the ball moving, the other team gets tired. So I want to make sure that I don’t lose it, that I keep it moving and get it from one side to the other.”

Nicol noted McCarthy’s strength in the air, but also praised other areas of his game when asked what gave him the confidence to play the first-year midfielder from the outset.

“Obviously his aerial ability is huge,” Nicol said. “But his touch is good, he wants to pass the ball and he wants to go forward, as well. Those are just some of the reasons why we play him.”

McCarthy honed all those skills on the field in college, although it may have been his journey along the way which served him the most as he made the leap to professional soccer.

After three impressive seasons at Santa Clara, McCarthy made a life-changing decision and transferred to North Carolina for his senior year. Although his first attempt at playing with the Tar Heels in 2009 was cut short by a season-ending injury after just three games, McCarthy returned for his redshirt senior season and was a revelation, guiding his new team to an appearance in the NCAA College Cup.

“I think I needed to challenge myself, and the [Atlantic Coast Conference] was where to do that,” McCarthy said of his cross-country switch, noting that he had nothing but fond memories of his time at Santa Clara. “In hindsight, I would not be here (with the Revs) had I not transferred.”

With that said, it’s amazing to think that McCarthy’s college soccer experience was almost ended by a sports hernia injury, which he carried from Santa Clara to UNC. After a promising start to his true senior season – his first with the Tar Heels – McCarthy realized he could no longer play through the pain and reluctantly agreed to a surgical procedure which would keep him off the field for the rest of the year.

The mental strain of the decision wore on McCarthy, especially as he watched his teammates from the sidelines.

“It was tough,” he said. “Watching the team go all the way to the [College Cup] was really hard, because I knew maybe the next year it wouldn’t be the same team.”

But McCarthy returned from the injury in 2010 stronger than ever and with a renewed sense of optimism. Playing as a redshirt senior, he guided North Carolina back to the College Cup, and although the Tar Heels fell to Louisville in the national semifinals – McCarthy scored UNC’s lone goal in a 2-1 loss – his performances were enough to push him into the top rung of college prospects.

As he’s made the adjustment to the professional game, McCarthy has found his college experience – including the injury – helped fortify both his mental toughness and his self confidence, attributes which have served him well in the early stages of his MLS career.

“I know it’s kind of cliché, but (at the professional level) you’re constantly thinking,” McCarthy said. “In college, you can take breaks in your mind; maybe you let a guy run through behind you and you don’t really worry about it. [In MLS], you can’t do that. By the end of the game, I’m mentally drained.”

While McCarthy’s primary concern may be keeping his focus throughout 90 minutes, the rookie has already proven he’s perfectly capable of hanging with the professionals until the final whistle.

As it turns out, the explanation behind his success is pretty straightforward.

“[Coach Nicol] told me that the reason he’s giving me the opportunity (to play) is because I’m doing the simple things well,” McCarthy said. “That really stuck with me and I’m trying to remember that each day.

“I’m trying to remember that you don’t have to be a crazy Ronaldinho [type player] who can do crazy tricks,” he said. “You just have to do the simple things right, so I’m just trying to do that each day and I think the rest will come.”