BY DAVE MARTINEZ
A thirty-yard, outside-of-the-foot curler that beat Mexican keeper Memo Ochoa upper 90 was followed by a howling celebration and a playful smile as teammates lauded the strike with a chorus of ooh’s and ahh’s. His movement was spry, his passes precise. Indeed, for the first time in weeks, Rafa Marquez looked to be having fun on a soccer pitch.
The former Mexican captain was reunited with his National teammates who gathered in the shadow of MetLife Stadium in preparation for Sunday’s friendly against Wales. Marquez, who hasn’t addressed the American media since his suspension for the injury of San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Shea Salinas, seemed genuinely excited about the encounter.
“It’s good. There are a lot of quality players, players that have earned their position based on their showing the past few games,” Marquez said of his National side. ”Others that we already know are in Europe and haven’t seen much action, but here with the National team have shown well. It’s a complete team.”
A new World Cup cycle that could be his last with the National team; a fact he has addressed on several occasions leading up to this point. For Marquez, each opportunity is a chance to solidify his spot for Brazil 2014. “There is always quality on the team,” he said. “Today, there are players that are doing great things, so the competition is tougher.
“It’s a bit more serious, though it is always serious. Knowing that there are two important World Cup Qualifiers that we have to focus on, even though we have these friendlies coming, it’s to prepare for those matches. “
Mexico has a busy schedule over the next few weeks, including encounters against Wales, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Brazil in preparation for their first pair of qualifiers against Guyana and El Salvador.
Wales will be the team’s first true test, though they will be missing a handful of stars – most notably, Tottenham star Gareth Bale. “Maybe (Wales is) stronger than the others,” Marquez said comparing this weekend’s opponent to their qualifying challengers. “It's also a friendly and preparation for us. We need to take it that way.
“They are a strong team with strong forwards that can be difficult for us.”
One concern for Marquez may be his fitness. He has featured in only six of thirteen matches for the New York Red Bulls all season, missing time for suspensions and injury issues. To his credit, he did go the distance against Chivas USA in a disappointing 1-1 draw at Red Bull Arena; an experience he feels is a good test of his health for the coming matches.
“I played 90 minutes last Wednesday and I felt well physically,” Marquez said.
Apart from that, he kept his distance from addressing issues related to his club team. When asked if the time off after his suspension may have perhaps soothed situations and allowed things to calm, he simply replied, “I am always calm.”
Clearly, Marquez is leaving his club issues aside for a few weeks. For now, his focus is on World Cup Qualifiers.
Mexico takes on Wales on Sunday at 3pm at MetLife Stadium.