Sacha Kljestan on Dax McCarty: “It’s going to be fun, but its going to be very difficult for sure.” (Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis

FrontRowSoccer.com Editor

If Dax McCarty is anything like in a game as he was in Red Bulls practice, Sacha Kljestan realizes he and his teammates will be in for a hum-dinger at Red Bull Arena Saturday.

McCarty, captain of the team from 2012-2015 before he was dealt to the Chicago Fire in January, could be tussling with Kljestan, the current captain.

“It was tough,” Kljestan said of McCarty’s departure. “We had a great partnership in the midfield. I really loved playing with him. I think him and I made each better on the field as teammates, but I think we also made each other better as opponents in practice everyday day. So, when we had to play against each other in practice I always knew it was going to be a tough game. I always knew I was going to get his best.

“Now, it’s going to be put to the test for the real thing, for 90 minutes with three points on the line. It’s going to be fun, but its going to be very difficult for sure.”

Right back Sal Zizzo, who got to know the Chicago midfielder quite well during their tenure with the Red Bulls, said McCarty “is a great player and good friend.”

“There’s going to be a lot of emotions with him coming back, I’m sure, with the fans and organization,” Zizzo said. “He was a big part of what this organization did for a lot of years; a couple of Supporters Shields and some really good seasons. Obviously, there’s going to be really high emotions as well.”

But …

“It’s just another game,” he added. “We’ve just got to contain him. He’s a good player.”

During his 5 1/2-year tenure with New York, the 29-year-old McCarty earned much respect from the younger generations as a team leader.

And that was backed by the comments from some of the younger players talking about the veteran defensive midfielder after Thursday’s practice at the Red Bulls training facility in Hanover, N.J.

“He was a role model for me, playing the same position as me,” said one of McCarty’s successors at Red Bulls’ defensive midfielder; Sean Davis is the other holding mid.

“He was a veteran of the league, played at top game, hard games,” said Adams, who is set to join the U.S. Under-20 national team for the U-20 World Cup in South Korea next month. “He set the tone for me and gave me tips and the experiences he had has helped me to where I am to now.”

Alex Muyl, who has scored in the last two Red Bulls’ games, both wins, had similar sentiments about McCarty.

“As a young player coming into the team last year, he gave a lot of support to me, a lot of encouragement,” Muyl told reporters. “He was really helpful. He’s not only a lead by example guy, but he’s someone definitely will tell you what he wants you to do something differently. As a young player, it helps you a lot, you have someone you can look to. He was very helpful to me. Everyone knows him and respects him a lot and ready for him to come here and compete hard and hopefully have a good game, but we get the three points.”

Hmmm. Look at that last sentence.

McCarty’s influence was such that his former teammates hope he does well, as long as their team does better.

While McCarty most likely will say hello to his old teammates and friends on the field, it remains to be seen whether he will even meet Red Bulls head coach Jesse Marsch. Marsch, if you remember, masterminded the controversial trade of McCarty to the Fire for $400,000 in allocation money.

McCarty criticized Marsch on the way the deal was handled.

“It was a tough thing to do from an emotional standpoint, but a thing we were clear as an organization that we needed to do,” Marsch said, before he noted a writer’s remark. “You say we circled the date. I think so. It’s a day for the fans to appreciate Dax, for Dax to appreciate the fans, for Dax to see the people who meant a lot to him.

“This is a great club. When all of us leave, we’re going to miss the days of being here because it’s a wonderful place.”

Marsch said that he wanted McCarty “to appreciate that, want the club and the fans to show appreciation to Dax.”

A homecoming is nice, but leaving RBA with three points would be nicer for either side.

“Most importantly, the focus has to be on the match,” Marsch said. “I think our guys understand that. We’ve talked about what Chicago is about, talked about making it hard on their important guys, Dax being one of them. And we know they’ll be up for the match. Historically, Chicago has caused us problems. We always have to make to account for the things that they’re good at and try to execute what we’re good at and making it pay for us on the day.”