Center (back) of attention

The following story was published in the Revolution’s “Match Day” program for the June 30 game against Seattle Sounders FC

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – If you’d told lifelong central midfielder Stephen McCarthy five months ago that by the beginning of the season he’d be a starting central defender, he would’ve called you crazy.

“I for sure would’ve laughed and made a joke about it, because there’s no way I would’ve seen myself doing that,” McCarthy admitted. “But here we are.”

Here we are. But how did we get here?

Five months ago when the New England Revolution’s preseason training camp opened in Foxborough, McCarthy was unequivocally a central midfielder. He’d played there in high school. He’d played there in college. And he’d started 18 games there as a rookie in 2011.

Now approaching the midway point of the 2012 campaign, McCarthy is not only a viable option in central defense, but he’s become a staple at the position alongside fellow second-year defender A.J. Soares. Through mid-June McCarthy had started every game for which he’d been available at center back, missing just one match through suspension and another through injury.

The transition from midfield to the backline began early in preseason when newly-appointed head coach Jay Heaps told McCarthy he wanted to give him some reps in training with the defenders. From his perch high above the field as the Revolution’s color analyst in 2011, Heaps had seen traits in McCarthy he thought would translate well to the center back position.

McCarthy was hesitant at first, but the faith placed in him by his new head coach gave the 23-year-old Texan the confidence he needed to work though the growing pains in those early days.

“He’s played back there before, [so his faith means] even more,” McCarthy said of Heaps, a former defender. “He pulled me into his office early in the season and said he liked everything I was doing and he had faith that I could do it. It’s huge for me. You want to show him that you can, so you have to prove it each week.

“The first few weeks (of training) were not fun when I was probably back-to-back top goals (scored) against me,” McCarthy added with a chuckle. “I think a lot of people at this level are their own biggest critics and it’s tough to put it all down to growing pains, but I think it is (growing pains) and it still will be just figuring it out. But the mistakes are lessening and I think that’s what’s giving me hope that I can do even better and better.”

The mistakes have lessened significantly in recent weeks and the evidence has been clear in the results. After managing just one shutout through the first 12 games of the season, the Revs kept consecutive clean sheets against the Chicago Fire (June 2) and Columbus Crew (June 16). In the aftermath, McCarthy was singled out for praise by both his coaches – Heaps called his performance against the Crew “sensational” – and teammates.

“He’s made huge strides this season,” Soares said of his central defensive partner. “He’s becoming a top-level center back and he’s awesome to play next to. We cover each other’s backs well. We have a good relationship and hang out a lot, so I think that’s important. We have good camaraderie. I think we’re getting better every game.”

McCarthy has consistently lauded Soares for his contributions in aiding the transition to center back – “Too much to say,” McCarthy answered when asked what Soares has done for him – while he also credits simple game experience with some of the improvements he’s made recently. In areas in which he once lacked confidence, McCarthy is now slowly gaining self-assurance.

“It’s tough to come straight into the backline and have to have one-on-one matchups and be completely confident with your defending when it’s basically the first time you’ve done it in your life,” he said. “So once you start to realize that you can win some matchups against some top forwards, then you gain confidence.”

That confidence grows exponentially as McCarthy continues to learn, a process he admits he’s still going through every game, every training session.

“Every single play,” he said. “It’s constant. It was in the midfield, as well, but after 18 years of playing there I started to see the same things. So now I see a lot of new things every day and I learn from each new thing.”