Stories of the Year, No. 10: Marquez madness

As the Best of 2011 series continues on MLSsoccer.com, we're counting down the 11 most important stories of the year in Major League Soccer. We'll take a look at one story per day from Dec. 21 until Dec. 31, when we unveil what our editors voted as the Story of the Year in MLS in 2011.

New media editor Matthew Doyle continues the countdown with No. 10: A look at a tumultuous year for New York Red Bulls star Rafa Márquez.

There’s a school of thought that says it doesn’t matter whether you’re good or bad. All that matters is that you’re remembered.

By that standard, New York Red Bulls midfielder/defender Rafa Márquez had a whale of a 2011 season, one that friends, foes, fans and pundits aren’t likely to forget any time soon.

The Mexican Designated Player began the year playing well, but like the rest of RBNY, began struggling as summer rolled in. With the team sinking in the standings, the Supporters’ Shield out of reach and the playoffs looking like a serious question mark, things came to a head in a mid-September home loss to Real Salt Lake.

A HISTORY OF CONTROVERSY

Rafa Márquez drew the ire of a number of fans for his actions in MLS in 2011, but he's certainly no stranger to controversy. In fact, there are two moments that have helped define his career among US fans.

June 17, 2002: Márquez is issued a red card after he cracks US midfielder Cobi Jones with his head during a mid-air collision. The foul, which punctuated Mexico's frustrating and historic loss to the Americans in the Round of 16 in the World Cup in South Korea, eventually led to a four-game ban from FIFA.

Feb. 11, 2009: Márquez does his best Ninja Gaiden impression with a leaping kick to exposed US goalkeeper Tim Howard as the two come together on a loose ball in the US penalty box. Howard crumples to the turf and Márquez is shown the door with the straight red card. The Americans went on to win 2-0 the World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio.

It’s not that RSL were particularly good on the evening; they were simply the beneficiaries of some comical defending and passing from the Red Bulls. The lowlight was a flubbed back pass from RBNY defender Tim Ream that Fabián Espíndola deposited for a 2-0 lead in the 11th minute. The Claret-and-Cobalt went on to a comfortable 3-1 win.

After the game, Márquez went nuclear, talking to Dave Martinez of the Empire of Soccer blog. And he targeted Ream.

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

Ok – a little harsh, but fair enough, right? Veterans are supposed to hold youngsters accountable and Ream, by his own admission, was having a poor season.

Well, with Rafa, there’s always a little bit more.

“If you watched the game, there were individual errors that you can’t do anything about,” Márquez explained. “I almost didn’t commit any errors, so I am not worried. 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.”

Ouch.

So much for veteran leadership – especially considering it was Márquez’s turnovers that had cost the Red Bulls in the previous match against RSL. This came off less as a veteran holding a youngster accountable and more like a guy throwing teammates – any and all – under the nearest bus.

For his words, head coach Hans Backe suspended Márquez for the following game. He also moved him into the central midfield, pairing Ream with the blood-and-guts journeyman Stephen Keel in the center of the defense for the stretch run.

2011 EDITOR'S PICK
"Joining the Big Leagues" by Leander Schaerlaeckens

ESPN.com

The move worked. New York didn’t exactly go on a tear, but they did stop leaking “infantile” goals and finished the regular season with a 3-1-1 mark in the wake of the RSL disaster, qualifying for the postseason in the process.

They then opened up the playoffs with a hard-fought 2-0 win over FC Dallas, which made for a date with Supporters’ Shield winners LA Galaxy in the Western Conference Semifinals.

The Red Bulls hosted the first leg of the series at the snowed-in Red Bull Arena and, if not for a spectacular day from the Galaxy’s Josh Saunders, would have walked away with at least a 2-1 win. But the LA ‘keeper put in a performance for the ages, making Mike Magee’s early goal stand, and the Galaxy claimed a 1-0 win.

And as the final whistle sounded, it was Rafa Time once again.

Márquez inexplicably picked up the ball at after the final whistle and rifled it at Landon Donovan, who was walking past the center circle. Adam Cristman took exception and got into a shoving match with Márquez, who in turn took a swing at the big forward.

From there, players from both teams piled on. LA’s Juninho slapped Keel in the face, Carlos Mendes pushed Cristman away from the scene, and most everyone watched bemusedly as Márquez fell to the ground, clutching his face after having been hit by absolutely no one.

In the denouement, Juninho earned himself a one-game suspension and missed the second leg (which the Galaxy won 2-1, eliminating the Red Bulls). Márquez was also suspended for that contest and, for his efforts, two more on top of it. They’re to be served at the start of the 2012 season.

Good? Bad? With Márquez in 2011, there was plenty of both.

But above all, it was memorable. Nobody who was there will ever forget Rafa’s first full season with the Red Bulls. And for some, that’s what really matters.

WATCH: Márquez incites flare-up against Galaxy