After an intense 90 minutes of play between the New York Red Bulls and Los Angeles Galaxy on Sunday, most of the talk was, unfortunately, focused on what happened after the full-time whistle. Rafael Marquez, who was visibly frustrated all afternoon with Alex Prus' inconsistent refereeing (and perhaps dismayed at Josh Saunders' late save of his goal-bound effort), threw a ball at Landon Donovan at the conclusion of the match, setting of a melée involving Juninho, Adam Cristman and Stephen Keel, as well as Marquez. Video of the incident is available here on the MLS website.
Marquez's initial boneheaded act earned him a red card from Prus. On the Galaxy side, Juninho's elbow to Keel's face will see him on the sidelines for Thursday's second leg. Cristman and Keel were spared any further punishment. In the end, the loss of Marquez may mean less for the Red Bulls than the absence of Juninho does for the Galaxy. Los Angeles has relied on the Brazilian's steady play in midfield all season long, and with a 1-0 lead to protect, he could have been a key player in frustrating New York's attacks and disrupting their midfield.It will be interesting to see how Bruce Arena reacts, with several options available - none of them completely satisfactory. For New York, who have become accustomed to playing without Marquez over the course of the season, either due to injury or international duties, there are no such concerns. Dax McCarty, who suffered an ankle injury in the wild card victory over Dallas but should be available for selection on Thursday, is the natural replacement in midfield.
From a long-term perspective there are hard questions that need to be asked about Marquez's future in New York. Erik Solér and Hans Backe have made it clear that they expect to see #4 back in a Red Bulls shirt next season, but there will be intense pressure from some quarters to unload him and move on, especially if the team fails to get past the Galaxy. After a fairly promising start in 2010, the Mexican has looked off the pace and disinterested at times in 2011. Whether they contained painful truths or not, his controversial remarks about his Red Bull teammates - Tim Ream in particular - had already earned him a fair share of criticism from media and fans. Several positive performances down the home stretch of the MLS regular season helped cool tensions, only to have them flare up again after Sunday's game.
What Solér and Backe really need to determine is whether Marquez's head is in New York. If he's not fully committed to giving his best to the Red Bulls and MLS, they should do everything in their power to find a new home for him, even if it means picking up part of his hefty salary. With Joel Lindpere's contract up and a general lack of depth across the squad, the Red Bulls need to be smarter about allocating resources and simply cannot afford to be paying designated player wages for sub-par play.
On the other hand, if Marquez re-affirms his commitment to the organization, can better control his emotions and finds a way to turn his work habits around he could still be a valuable asset, though probably not at center back, where his lack of speed has been exposed again and again. (By the way, for a reminder of Marquez's quality and vision, look no further than this pass only a few short weeks ago.)
Marquez's future is just one of many issues the Red Bulls brain trust will need to hash out over the winter. For now, the Mexican has let his teammates down again when they needed him to show leadership. They'll have to put the incident behind them for two hours on Thursday and concentrate on overturning the Galaxy's 1-0 advantage. There will be plenty of time for the blame game when the season's over.