MONTCLAIR, N.J. – The New York Red Bulls appear prepared to head down the fateful final stretch of the season with Rafa Márquez right where he was the last time his club reached the postseason.
New York head coach Hans Backe said Monday that Márquez will suit up in a central midfield role against the league-league leading LA Galaxy on Tuesday (8 pm ET, ESPN2), the second match in a row the Mexican international won’t play along the Red Bulls’ mercurial back line.
The last time Márquez played his traditional centerback spot was during New York’s ill-fated 3-1 loss to Real Salt Lake on Sept. 21, a match that included a dissatisfied Red Bull Arena crowd booing his every touch and then Márquez himself questioning his fellow defenders’ skills when the chips were down.
Márquez served a one-game suspension for the comments (New York’s 2-0 win over Portland on Sept. 24) and then returned to the field for Saturday’s 1-1 draw against Toronto FC in the midfield. That’s where he spent the bulk of his first season in MLS, when the Red Bulls boasted one of the best defenses in the league and the best regular season record in the Eastern Conference.
Was it a coincidence? No one’s saying that much, but here’s what’s clear: head coach Hans Backe likes the look of his defense now, and that’s without Márquez in the mix.
“We will definitely stay with the same back four, they played very well,” Backe said. “They’ve been (our best defense) the last three or four games.
“(Márquez) is very good for our buildup, with the distribution that we can come out in a good way from the back four, so we don’t end up just kicking it long and hoping to pick up seconds and bits and pieces.”
Stephen Keel once again paired admirably with Tim Ream to anchor the back line against Toronto FC, while Jan Gunnar Solli and Roy Miller manned the right and left sides of the group, respectively.
Márquez, meanwhile, paired with Teemu Tainio to anchor the central midfield, and was taken out for Dax McCarty in the 79th minute.
“Rafa will always calm everybody down, whether he plays in the middle or the back, that’s the type of player he is on the ball,” striker Thierry Henry said. “He gave some great passes on Saturday to Luke and some others. For me, Rafa can play well at the back or in the middle or wherever you want to put him; he’s an important player for us.”
Watching the standings
Both Backe and Henry marveled Monday at the team’s good fortune over the weekend, considering that their Eastern Conference foes Sporting KC, Philadelphia, Houston and D.C. United all failed to grab three points while the Red Bulls were stuck in neutral.
In fact, the only team to post a win in the muddled Eastern Conference playoff race was the Columbus Crew, who topped D.C. United 2-1 on Saturday.
Those results leave the Red Bulls in a strange predicament to those relatively new to the exhausting parity of MLS: they’re within striking distance of the top seed in the East, but also dangerously close to missing the postseason entirely.
Simply put, no one has taken charge of a race there for the taking, including the Red Bulls.
“We’ve been saying since the beginning, that the Eastern Conference is sort of a weird one,” Henry said. “Maybe it’s not a coincidence that the last two champions have come from the Western Conference.”
Said Backe: “I don’t think you’ll see many seasons like this. Normally, when you play 16 tied games, you should be out of it. It’s a tricky season, a strange season.”
Henry on the Galaxy
The LA Galaxy have allowed a league-low 23 goals this season, but Henry is one of the few who cracked the code. He scored in the 4th minute when the teams met back on May 7, but the Galaxy clawed back for a 1-1 draw on the strength of a Landon Donovan goal late in the first half.
“I was saying the other day to some of the guys that when you play against Salt Lake, you can’t have a lot of opportunities. But when you play LA, you do have them,” Henry said. “But somehow they don’t concede. Even when they’re 1-0 down, they find a way to win 2-1. Or if it’s 0-0, they manage to win 1-0 right at the end. But that’s the story of a team who has played together for a very long time … and now they’re the best and most consistent team in the league.”