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The Case for Rafa Marquez

Rafa was back in training with the Red Bulls reserves on Monday, but what his place with the first team is still unknown.
Rafa was back in training with the Red Bulls reserves on Monday, but what his place with the first team is still unknown.

When a team is doing poorly, the blame usually falls on one prominent person - in (American) football it's the quarterback and in baseball it's the manager. But in soccer it's not always quite so clear. This season, the vitriol around the New York Red Bulls has been directed mainly at Erik Soler and Hans Backe. Last Wednesday, it seemed as if every shortcoming of the Red Bulls suddenly became an afterthought as with one public critique of his teammates and in particular fan favorite Tim Ream, Rafa Marquez became the undisputed villain among Red Bull fans - all that's missing is a fake Twitter account.

Here at Once a Metro, The Case Against Rafa Marquez summed up the anti-Rafa sentiment well: "...Marquez is representative of exactly what this team should not be: overpaid, lackadaisical, elitist." A nationwide lightbulb went off as American soccer followers simultaneously realized why the Red Bulls have underperformed this season (Rafa Marquez). Grant Wahl wondered how he could have predicted Marquez to be MLS Defender of the Year and concluded that bringing Marquez to New York was a "huge mistake," a true kiss of death from someone who witnessed first hand the disaster that was David Beckham's arrival with the L.A. Galaxy.

Lost in much of the debate is how the fall of Rafa Marquez started long before his disparaging comments after a 3-1 loss to Real Salt Lake last week. And it happened before Red Bull fans, who also followed the Gold Cup, noticed an enormous gap between his energy and level of play for his country and his lackadaisical performances for his club.

While Marquez hasn't been on the field for the team's last four wins (which takes New York all the way back to April 30), he has been missing for a lot of tough losses and blown leads resulting in ties as well. From an availability standpoint, Marquez has only played in fifteen out of thirty league matches for the Red Bulls this season. However, New York knew they were signing a player still active with his National team, and if anything that probably was an added benefit for Red Bulls management. Unfortunately, for both him and the team, Marquez's resonance as a New York Red Bull with tri-state tricolor supporters has been massively disappointing. Tens of thousands of Mexico National Team supporters make themselves known when Mexico plays in New Jersey. But for whatever reason, that interest and passion for a national team doesn't translate into turnout to see the El Tri captain play for MLS.

Back to the whole "Marquez hasn't played in a single match that the Red Bulls won since April" argument. The Red Bulls have struggled massively since starting the season incredibly well. In Marquez's first seven matches, he played the full ninety minutes and the Red Bulls went 4-1-2 and outscored their opponents 11-3. The only loss during that stretch came against Philadelphia when Juan Agudelo hit the post twice and a Tim Ream backline blunder were largely to blame for the Union's 1-0 victory.

After the Red Bulls tied the L.A. Galaxy 1-1 in what was one of the most enjoyable MLS matches of the season, the team returned home with nothing to fear against an inferior Chivas USA team only to lose 3-2 to Justin Braun the Goats. After the match, Tim Ream publicly called out his teammates for being cocky. Remarks that don't sting as badly as Marquez's, but still perhaps better saved for a private team meeting. And the rest is now history that has unfolded painfully for the New York faithful - shortly after the Chivas loss, Marquez left for the Gold Cup, picked up an injury in the final, and did not return to the field for New York for almost two months.

Since Marquez returned, he has started in six games and has three assists - two of which came on late equalizers against Vancover and New England where New York was able to come from behind and salvage a point. While his efforts defensively leave a lot to be desired, if he pushes forward to join the attack, someone, whether an outside back or one of New York's TWO holding midfielders, needs to provide cover.

At this point, has Marquez earned his relatively large pay check? Absolutely not. But it wasn't until this season, his fourth in MLS, that David Beckham's play has matched his salary. Beckham only made eighteen appearances for the Galaxy in league play in the 2009 and 2010 seasons. This year? Beckham is tied for most assists in MLS and talks about wanting to continue to play in the United States - both unthinkable just a year ago. Thierry Henry struggled to find the back of net with just two goals in his first fourteen starts, and there is another incredibly talented player who struggled to thrive with New York but is now a potential league MVP with DC United.

The Red Bulls should not give up on Rafa Marquez and Marquez should do whatever necessary to re-invest himself in the team and earn the respect of his fellow players not just as a gifted soccer player but as a leader and a teammate. If the environment for Marquez with Backe and Soler is really "poisonous" as one source told Big Apple Soccer, maybe the best thing would be to find another team for Marquez in the off-season. But if Marquez goes, the blame for his lack of success in New York cannot fall solely on his shoulders. And Red Bull supporters calling for Marquez to be traded or sold in January should be careful what they wish for - whether it's to another MLS team or setting up a possible future matchup against a Mexican club in CONCACAF Champions League, Rafa Marquez still has a lot of quality soccer left in him. I just hope that we see it while he's with the Red Bulls.