By DAVE MARTINEZ
In a single match, Rafa Marquez showed why he can simultaneously be a frustrating yet invaluable part of the New York Red Bulls.
Sunday's 3-2 victory over the Philadelphia Union marked his first match back since April 14th, when his tackle on San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Shea Salinas earned him a three-game suspension. Although his performance suffered due to a handful of bad giveaways, lost challenges and a torridly slow pace in the midfield, he was directly responsible for setting up the game-winning goal that delivered the Red Bulls their first victory at PPL Park and a win that put the club in first place in the Eastern Conference.
“It was an incredible ball by Rafa,” said Kenny Cooper, the beneficary of Marquez' assist. “His vision, the execution of the pass is just world class. He is a world-class player. It’s really a privilege to be on the field with someone like him who has accomplished so much and he brings so much quality. You can see it in the pass he gave to me, and fortunately it ended up in the back of the net.”
Marquez began the night at his customary defensive midfield position, lining up as the lone destroyer in a 4-1-3-2. Over the past few weeks, Dax McCarty has filled the role well, playing close to his backline and acting, as Ryan Meara put it last week, as the team's “third centerback.”
The former Mexican captain did not seem fit enough to play the role throughout the first half. Having only played four of nine games for New York this season, Marquez looked like a man trying to find his form. Freddy Adu, who was enjoying a masterful showing prior to his ejection, targeted Marquez in the middle and the returning Roy Miller on the left. Neither of the veteran defenders could close in on the inspired American international. Without an extra bite in front of them, the Red Bulls defense wilted under pressure.
“We lost possession in the first half too quick,” Red Bulls coach Hans Backe remarked after the match. “One or two passes and then we were forced to defend. I’m really surprised with that, because normally we can say that we have quite the set of players on the pitch and can have more possession.”
Even as they were up a man, the Red Bulls looked like the short-handed side early in the second half. Marquez continued to struggle at the front line of the defense as the Union kept steady pressure in the Red Bulls zone.
A shift in tactics changed everything, though. Centerback Tyler Ruthven was taken out for Victor Palsson and Marquez shifted back to centerback role alongside Markus Holgersson, which pushed McCarty back to defensive midfield and Palsson as the connector further up field. After the switch, the team settled, as did its returning DP.
Marquez sent a well-read and beautifully placed feed from the midfield stripe that found Cooper breaking into a lane between the Union defenders. Cooper settled the ball and put it into the back of the net from an acute angle for the game-winning goal. From there on out, the team played a compact game through the dying minutes and secured the victory.
In a moment, Marquez once again displayed his ability to break a defense with a single pass, practically erasing whatever shortcomings he had suffered on the defensive side throughout the match. As opposed to last season, when the Red Bulls seemed to thrive without Marquez in the lineup, the club is undefeated (4-0-1) through five matches with Marquez in the lineup this year. Regardless of the emotions he may stir from Red Bulls and MLS fans, he still possesses the quality to be a vital part of the club going forward.
“(He did) quite okay,” Backe said of Marquez’s first game back. “He’s been away for a while, and he needs competitive minutes.”