Dax McCarty doesn’t know what sort of reception he will receive from Red Bulls fans, but he knows that he will thank the Red Bull Arena faithful Saturday night for their support through the years. (Patrick Gorski/USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

When he and his Chicago Fire teammates enter Red Bull Arena Saturday, Dax McCarty will know to turn left and not right, towards the visiting locker room.

For 5 1/2 seasons, McCarty could have walked to the Red Bulls locker room blind-folded.

On Saturday, the former team captain and popular player will have his eyes wide open as he returns return as “the enemy” when the Fire meets the Red Bulls for the 7:30 p.m. Major League Soccer encounter.

For the first time since his controversial trade that sent him to Chicago for $400,000 in allocation money, McCarty makes his return to RBA.

The veteran defensive midfielder figured it will be an emotional night for himself — except for 90-plus minutes.

“I think I’ll be pretty emotional before the game, after the game, not so much during the game,” he said during a Wednesday phone call from Chicago. “But definitely before and afterwards it will be emotional. It will be a little bit nostalgic, obviously. But I’m a professional. I’ve gone through this before, I’ve gone through trades before. Obviously, not quite of this magnitude of how much this club meant to me. Certainly it will be an interesting feeling. Once the whistle blows, I’ll be ready to go and I’ll push all those emotions aside and treat it like another game.”

As a 12-year MLS veteran, McCarty said he has learned to turn on and off his emotions before and after games.

“You just have to be a professional about it,” he said. “You just have to go on the field and focus on winning. That’s the most important thing. All the stuff that happens off the field, the media, all the fan interaction, all the pregame talk, that doesn’t mean anything. The only thing that means anything to me is what you do when you step across that white line and go to battle against a tough opponent for 90 minutes.”

McCarty, who turns 30 this Sunday, has played in 282 MLS matches since being selected as the sixth overall pick by FC Dallas in the 2006 MLS SuperDraft.

Like it or not, he has become accustomed to the transient life of a professional athlete. Having five seasons in Dallas, he was taken by the Portland Timbers in the 2011 expansion draft and then dealt with allocation money to D.C. United for Rodney Wallace (now with New York City FC) and a fourth-round choice in the 2011 SuperDraft.

Midway through the 2011 season, he was traded to the Red Bulls for Canadian international Dwayne DeRosario in what some local soccer observers termed a controversial deal. DeRosario has since retired while McCarty’s career is still alive and kicking.

So McCarty has been around the block and then some.

“It’s easy for me to focus just solely on the game, solely on soccer,” he said. I just need to focus on what I need to be successful against a really good team. That’s kind of the way I’m looking at it. This is going to be one of the biggest challenges we’ll have all season, playing the Red Bulls at Red Bull Arena. They’re one of the best teams in the league when they play at Red Bull Arena.

“It’s going to be a huge test for the team and it’s one that I’m really excited about, really looking forward to. The game is not going to be about me, the game’s going to be about our team. the game’s going to be about 11 players against 11 players for 90 minutes and whichever team that can be better, sharper on the day is going to be victorious. So that’s basically how i get through it and how I focus on it.”

A fan favorite during his tenure with the Red Bulls, McCarty admitted he did not know how he would be received by the teams’ fans. He earned Red Bulls’ supporters respect with his lunch-pail attitude by playing his heart out game in and game out for two Supporters Shield winning sides and an Eastern Conference champion. Though not known as a goal-scorer, McCarty found a way to score several vital goals during his time in Harrison, N.J.

“I’m not sure. I hope I get a reaction from the crowd,” he said. “I know we had a good relationship during my time with the Red Bulls, but obviously, you never know. I’m an enemy now. I play for an opposing Eastern Conference rival. I’m sure they’re going to want my team to lose. but me personally, I don’t know.”

McCarty said he was looking forward communicating his feelings to the fans in person.

“I know my reception to them is going to be very, very grateful, very thankful for everything they did for me in my 5 1/2 years,” he said. “I think that they really appreciated the way I tried to play always for the club and the way that I was emotional and how much harder I played every time I stepped on the field. So I think they appreciated that, but you never quite know what your reception until you go through it. Hopefully, it’ll be a good one. Hopefully, it’ll be a favorable one.

“Even if it’s not, I don’t mind. I know it’s not personal. I’m going to make sure I’m going to stick around after the game and thank all the fans that stay and make sure [I tell them what] they meant for me and my time with the club.”

McCarty, however, might not have such nice words for everyone at RBA.

After the trade went down Jan. 16 a stunned McCarty had some harsh words about Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch, who masterminded the trade. The Winter Haven, Fla. native was on a high. He had just gotten married and joined the U.S. national team in Carson, Calif. for its January training camp, the first invitation

The news hit the 5-9, 150-lb. McCarty like a ton of bricks.

“I didn’t think they handled the situation in a very classy way,” he said in February.

In an interview with FourFourTwo, Marsch said, “I wish the circumstances would’ve been different, everything from the timing around his wedding, to the manner in which it caught him by surprise. Yeah, I wish that there was a world we lived in that didn’t put him in that situation. I’ll take responsibility for it and I know that Dax harbors ill will about it and frustration, and I understand that. It’s an incredibly awful situation that he and I may never really have the relationship that we once had.”

To which McCarty said in February: “He’s just an opposing coach, that coaches another team in MLS. I’m on another team that will try to beat them. I saw the story and the quotes that he made. I don’t really know what quite what to make of them because at the end of the day you could tell that it was a decision that was his decision.”

It probably is inevitable that the two will meet either prior to opening kickoff or after the final whistle. That potential meeting did not seem quite high on McCarty’s list of priorities.

“I don’t know. I don’t think about that. I honestly haven’t thought about that,” McCarty said Wednesday. “I don’t really care about that. I really don’t care how that’s going to go down. I just care about focusing on the game and focusing on how I can help my team win.”

Thursday: Dax Is Back, Part II: How to stop the Red Bulls

Front Row Soccer editor Michael Lewis has covered 13 World Cups (eight men, five women), seven Olympics and 25 MLS Cups. He has written about New York City FC, New York Cosmos, the New York Red Bulls and both U.S. national teams for Newsday and has penned a soccer history column for the Guardian.com. Lewis, who has been honored by the Press Club of Long Island and National Soccer Coaches Association of America, is the former editor of BigAppleSoccer.com. He has written seven books about the beautiful game and has published ALIVE AND KICKING The incredible but true story of the Rochester Lancers. It is available at Amazon.com.