In the same moment that Marc Rzatkowski changed the direction of his 79th minute run into space on Saturday night, the ball began sliding across the perfectly-manicured Red Bull Arena grass. The origin of the ball was a player not pronounced as a star, but one that is still a beacon for future stability within the organization: Sean Davis.
The score was tied at 2-2 – thanks to Rzatkowski’s first career MLS goal seven minutes prior – when the perfectly-weighted pass was delivered. The bold German substitute proceeded to blow the roof off Red Bull Arena with a second goal from outside the 18-yard-box, and the Holmdel, N.J. native was not only the provider of the assist, but the first teammate to join Rzatkowski in celebration.
“This guy’s attitude has been fantastic, he’s been a great teammate,” Davis said of Rzatkowski after the match. “And, it’s not easy, I try to put myself in his shoes and, he’s coming over from Europe to a new team, a new country, where maybe he’s not playing as much as he wants to.”
“And, I’m so impressed with his attitude and his work ethic every day; he’s positive, he’s energetic,” Davis went on to say. “So, you know, maybe inside he’s feeling a different way, but he never shows it. So, tonight is totally deserved.”
Rzatkowski came of age in the western German city of Bochum, born seven months before the German reunification. The five-foot, seven-inch midfielder spent the first 21 years of his life in his home city, rising through the ranks of VfL Bochum before reaching the first team in 2010.
The nimble playmaker, on loan from sister club Red Bull Salzburg, arrived in New York on Jan. 31. In Europe, he had heard Tony Britten’s iconic “Champions League” anthem, scoring the first goal in what was a 3-0 win for Salzburg in the second round of Champions League qualifying, in July of 2017.
But, in large part, the Red Bulls were functioning without him. Rzatkowski had only seen the field in nine of New York’s 17 regular season matches prior to Saturday night, with only four starts. The talent is undeniable, but injuries stunted his progress toward gaining first-team headway early in the season.
He stood on the outside, looking in on one of the most purposeful midfields in the league, with two homegrown pillars, the aforementioned Davis and Tyler Adams, and a young designated player in Alejandro Romero Gamarra, whom he subbed in for on Saturday in the 60th minute.
Davis spoke about putting himself in Rzatkowski’s shoes, but, truth be told, the wise midfielder only needs to call on his 2016 season to unearth a similar story. For the former Duke Blue Devils captain, the challenge two seasons ago was attempting to supplant designated player Sacha Kljestan, captain Dax McCarty or stalwart Felipe. Much like Rzatkowski this season, he needed patience.
Davis is a long way from the time-deprived 23-year-old that he was two seasons ago, though. In the period since, he has become the veteran in the center of midfield, carrying himself with the weight of responsibility and ice-cold demeanor of a captain.
“I think Sean Davis continues to grow, as a soccer player, understanding how to play the six and what the game needs, and he grows as a leader,” head coach Chris Armas said after the match.
“You can see that he’s the guy, when you scour video after the game, he’s the one pointing, organizing, controlling things out there,” Armas added. “Over the course of these years, he continues to grow in all ways and be a big piece, a big player here.”
His composure was on display when Rzatkowski roamed into an open patch of grass in front of Sporting goalkeeper Tim Melia’s 18-yard-box in the 79th minute. In that defining moment, Davis’ mind raced back to an emphasis within the team.
“The most important thing, we talk about it all the time, is giving a thoughtful pass,” Davis said. “And so, I saw that, you know, Marc was obviously on fire today. And, he was making a good run into the middle of the field, and, I just wanted to get him the ball.”
Rzatkowski made one brilliant touch with his left foot – heavy enough to evade the closing in Ilie Sánchez, but deft enough that it did not run too far away from him – and then viciously curled a shot that Melia could only brush into the top corner.
His insertion into the game – and with it the subtraction of Gamarra, who provided the opening assist to Bradley Wright-Phillips in the fourth minute – was a tactical roll of the dice by Armas that came up double sixes.
“Marc had a great week in training,” Armas said following his first win as head coach. “In every session, he brought energy, and he always has quality. But, he showed a lot of life this week, and, going into the game, we thought he could be a guy we could rely on in some capacity.”
For Rzatkowski, the 30-minute, two-goal performance was vindication for his steady demeanor during a period when he knew he was capable of contributing more. It is a testament to the German’s character that the frustration never manifested, and the chance to play more consistently may now be on his doorstep.
“I’m here, 100 percent,” Rzatkowski said after the match. “And, I’m really happy with all the teammates, and, yeah, like I said, there were a lot of ups and downs for me, because of my injuries. And, yeah, but I’m really happy to be here in this club, and, I want to give my best and show what I can.”