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Rafael Marquez: Player And Fan Emotions Fluctuate, But Quality Is Forever

Wednesday's Sardines From The Trawler looks at Rafael Marquez. His recent performances have come under scrutiny, but his performance on Tuesday night could have been a major turning point for both Marquez and his team.

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Rafael Marquez started slow against the Los Angeles Galaxy, but proved why he was signed in the first place with a brilliant assist.
Rafael Marquez started slow against the Los Angeles Galaxy, but proved why he was signed in the first place with a brilliant assist.

On September 21, 2011, Rafael Marquez threw his teammates under the bus. Following an absolutely embarrassing performance against Real Salt Lake in which the New York Red Bulls lost 3-1, he told the media that the team does not have defenders of sufficient quality to help him and that he and Thierry Henry are on a level above their teammates. From their 1-0 loss to D.C. United on July 9 through this game, the Red Bulls lost four times and dropped 22 points, falling from first place in the Eastern conference to a fringe playoff contender.

What Marquez said about his teammates post-match would cause manager Hans Backe to suspend him for one match, a match that the Red Bulls won against the Portland Timbers. Upon his return to the team, against Toronto FC, Marquez was moved out of defense and into midfield, where he started his Red Bulls career.

Via Dave Martinez at New York-centric soccer site Empire Of Soccer, here are some of the highlights from Marquez's rant from inside of the locker room. Yes, a place where he was surrounded by his teammates.

On his own performance and the talent of his teammates in the back line:

"I think I am playing at my maximum level, and doing everything I can. I don't have, unfortunately, four defenders on my level that can help me out."

On Tim Ream:

"Tim is still a young player with a lot to learn...He still has quite a lot to learn, and well, he has committed errors that are very infantile and cost us goals."

On how his team played after an error by Ream:

"Well, its difficult when things don't go well, when you have these types of errors...It is difficult for the team to go up after mistakes happened not once, but several times. If we do not learn to stop making these type of errors, we will have these types of results."  

And the killer. The one that got him suspended, on his teammates' general level of footballing ability:

"I think that this is a team game, and unfortunately, there isn't an equal level between perhaps (Thierry Henry) and myself, and our teammates."

Of course, that last quote isn't really news. Everyone is well aware that Rafael Marquez and Thierry Henry are more talented than the majority of the Red Bulls team. Both are UEFA Champions League winners and World Cup veterans, with Henry having won the latter competition as well. Both played for multiple clubs in multiple countries who qualified for the UEFA Champions League. Both also make in excess of $4.5 million per year in salary from the New York Red Bulls. In contrast, Tim Ream makes $62,000. This is not a typo, and I did not forget a zero. Ream, a United States national team regular who is regarded as one of the best young defenders in MLS, earns five figures per year.

If Rafael Marquez didn't want to play with a team that had players who were not on his level, he probably should have picked a different place to play. Like it or not, Major League Soccer's salary restrictions prevent the beverage mogul that pays his bills from surrounding him with similar talent. 

However, there's something wrong with Marquez's comments, beyond being disrespectful to his teammates. Something that offended those who watch RBNY on a regular basis much more than the criticism of his teammates did.

"I think I am playing at my maximum level, and doing everything I can."

That, Mr. Marquez, is demonstrably false. Ian Thomson on Kick Off Online did a fantastic job of demonstrating this, taking a whopping 21 screenshots of instances in which Marquez played extremely lazy defense. He outlines 10 instances in which Marquez's mistakes or lack of effort directly led to opposing goals. This is not the record of a man who has any license whatsoever to criticize his teammates for their lack of ability. Had Marquez been giving his best effort in these 10 instances, it's likely that Red Bulls would still be on top of the East.

Fast forward to Tuesday night, where Marquez made his second consecutive start in the center of midfield, partnered with Teemu Tainio. Dax McCarty, Carl Robinson and Mehdi Ballouchy were all left on the bench to necessitate this move, with rookie Stephen Keel coming into the center of defense. Keel and Ream made an excellent partnership as New York held Los Angeles to a shutout. The Galaxy did not have their best attackers on the night, but that's not to take anything away from Ream and Keel, who played very well.

In front of them, Marquez had an average first half. In the first 30 minutes, in particular, both Marquez and Tainio were poor, allowing David Beckham and Juninho to dictate the pace of play. Beckham was not closed down when attempting his very successful long balls, while Juninho and Paolo Cardozo were not closed down on long shot attempts that forced saves out of goalkeeper Frank Rost

Marquez looked at his worst in one particular instance, mid-way through the first half, when Omar Gonzalez blew by him in midfield with the ball. Gonzalez, a talented young central defender, has been left out of Jurgen Klinsmann's United States teams much to the dismay of a large number of USMNT fans, who believe he deserves his place. His size is elite, he's a fantastic tackler, and his tactical awareness is above average for someone of his age and level of experience. The knocks on Gonzalez are that he isn't as fast or strong on the ball as those who are above him in the pecking order in central defense.

Running out of defense with the ball, Gonzalez blew by Marquez effortlessly. A talented player who has been called too slow and not sound enough technically for the international game easily blew by a man who has won the UEFA Champions League twice and who has captained Mexico on numerous occasions. The move did not result in a goal for Los Angeles, or even a clear-cut scoring opportunity for that matter, but it was still a perfect demonstration of how absolutely absurd Marquez's comments about his teammates are.

In the 33rd minute, Luke Rodgers scored for New York and they went ahead. For the remainder of the first half, they were the better team. It was the second half where something really clicked for Marquez, though, and from the start of the second half until his substitution in the 82nd minute, Marquez was one of the best players on the pitch.

The highlight was, of course, his fantastic assist for New York's second goal. Though Marquez is an excellent defender, it's this pass and others like it that show exactly why RBNY is paying him so much money.

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Rafael Marquez has played lazily on a regular basis this season, but work rate can't generate quality like that. The kind of technique and creativity that Marquez displayed on that assist is extremely hard to find, and he made it look absolutely effortless.

The truth is, work rate is easy to find. NCAA Division I soccer produces an almost infinite number of very fit defensive midfielders with high work rates. If the Red Bulls just wanted someone that could run eight miles in 90 minutes, occasionally winning the ball off of attackers, they could find it easily. They wouldn't have to pay very much for it either. But what Marquez did on that assist? You can count the number of high work rate NCAA-produced players who can do that on one hand. You will be hard pressed to come up with five players who fit the bill.

When Marquez came off the pitch for Dax McCarty, the fans who had rightfully roasted him just two weeks prior applauded him as he exited the pitch. Marquez, showing his appreciation, enthusiastically applauded back. It appeared to be genuine, as if he realized his comments from two weeks ago were wholly inappropriate and that he was appreciative of the fans getting back on his side, at least temporarily.

For months, Marquez has looked like a lazy player and has not played up to the standard that is expected of a professional athlete, let alone a Designated Player. He then proceeded to throw his teammates under the bus when he was just as much to blame for RBNY's losses as Tim Ream or anyone else in the team. He was downright wrong both in his words and his actions, and there's no sugar coating that.

However, unless one spends a great deal of face to face time with a person, it is incredibly unfair to accuse them of being a lazy person or unprofessional in their chosen line of work. A distinction needs to be made between. Acting lazy and unprofessional is not the same thing as being lazy and unprofessional. Marquez's time at Monaco and Barcelona, as well as with El Tri, demonstrate that he has not been lazy and unprofessional for the bulk of his career.

If Marquez's second half performance against Los Angeles is repeated throughout October and November, Red Bulls will qualify for the MLS Cup Playoffs and they will be contenders when they get there. Marquez's actions for most of his career as a Red Bulls player do not indicate that he will perform at his highest level, but assuming that he is incapable of it is ignorant and irresponsible. He shows the passion to help his team win every time he pulls on the El Tri shirt, and on Tuesday night in a Red Bulls shirt, he showed the quality to help his team win. Even on his worst days, that quality is still there.

Whether or not Marquez will perform to the best of his abilities for the rest of the season is impossible to predict and he has done nothing to earn the benefit of the doubt. His work rate and passion can switch on at any time. However, the quality of what he can do with the ball never switches off.

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