When Brian Carroll began his Major League Soccer career in 2003, he didn't think about how long it would last. At the time, it was just a dream come true to play in the league. He was just trying to make it and enjoy what he was doing.

Thirteen years later, Carroll is still enjoying it, and he has the fourth-most starts of any player in league history. As the MLS grew in stability, Carroll has continued to stabilize games from midfield.

"To do it for as long as he has in his career is something special," Union coach Jim Curtin said.

This year, the Union are having one of their most successful seasons since their inception in 2010 and Carroll is in the middle of it all. The veteran captain has provided the club with a savvy presence and an ability to spread the ball to skilled offensive teammates.

But Carroll knows it's a long season, and the Union (8-6-5, 29 points) will continue their push against the Red Bulls (8-9-3, 27 points) at 7 p.m. Sunday at Talen Energy Stadium, sitting just one point out of first place in the Eastern Conference.

Though Carroll has just one goal and no assists this year, he has served as the Union's backbone in the defensive center midfield position. He has often made plays to thwart opponents' chances and sparked the Union by distributing the ball to teammates.

"Be an example for everybody," Carroll said of what he aims to do. "Kind of do all the little nitty-gritty things that don't really get noticed in the stat sheet but certainly help the club each and every day."

The Union have never finished better than third in the conference. A little more than halfway through the regular season, they have a chance to change that.

Carroll, who has been on the team since 2011, said the difference this year has been the Union's ability to keep possession of the ball and dictate the tempo of games. He tries to set players up on both sides of the field to keep defenses off balance. It's an under-the-radar role, but Carroll has led by example.

"I'm a little embarrassed when I say it, but he's how you'd want your son to be," Curtin said.

Carroll cited last weekend's dominant 3-0 win over D.C. United as an example of the Union's clicking on all cylinders. He was the one making play after play.

"He's a guy I want on the club as long as I'm here," Curtin said.

pschedelson@phillynews.com