As the Best of 2012 series continues on MLSsoccer.com, we're counting down the 12 most important stories of the year in Major League Soccer. We'll take a look at one story per day from Dec. 19 until Dec. 30, when we unveil what our panel of 20 editors, writers, videographers and statistics specialists voted as the Story of the Year in MLS in 2012.
Senior editor Simon Borg keeps the countdown rolling at No. 11: the departure of Rafa Márquez after more than two controversial seasons in MLS.
This much cannot be argued: Rafa Márquez delivered.
For a player who saw the field just 54 percent of the time in his MLS career, Márquez always seemed to be a lightning rod of discussion. For a guy who would go weeks without speaking to the media, people sure loved to talk about him.
They still are, even after Márquez agreed to mutually terminate his contract with the New York Red Bulls on Dec. 13 and move back home to Mexico, where 10,000 Club Leon fans fawned over him on his official presentation. More love and adulation in one day than he received in nearly three years in New York.
Let’s face it, it was probably for the better that the divorce materialized before the new year. This marriage was never destined to work. It was time for both sides to cut their losses short.
Márquez was doomed from the start with the baggage he carried coming into MLS. American soccer fans still have never forgotten the head butt he delivered to Cobi Jones at the 2002 World Cup or the other red card he received for a studs-up challenge on Tim Howard in a 2009 qualifier while playing for Mexico.
Old news? Yeah right.
“I don’t think I’m going to be very welcome [by US fans] … it’s normal,” Márquez admitted at his introductory press conference with the Red Bulls in July 2010.
It’s not like Márquez changed his style since Korea/Japan 2002. And American soccer, prodded by USMNT manager Jurgen Klinsmann for not being nasty enough, showed it still has no tolerance for the Mexican’s trademark gamesmanship ploys, his chippy play and the cheap shots he dished out. (His three-game suspension for driving San Jose’s Shea Salinas into the ground was probably the most prominent incident, but the punch on D.C.’s Chris Pontius has to be up there.)
It also didn’t sit well with the MLS crowd that in 2011 Márquez singled out one of America’s hottest prospects for criticism. No way, not in America’s league. And surely not from Márquez.
by Grantland's Graham Parker
Henry's "Olimpico" goal celebration
For me, it was the moment immediately after Henry scored from a corner.
He kind of sprinted up the field and he was pointing at his eyes, and he wanted to indicate to everyone that he had seen the chance. And it really brought it home to me, just how entertaining and great the ride is for the Red Bulls with him on the team.
There was something about that moment that really emphasized, for better or for worse, how central he really is to that team, and how interesting the offseason is going to be with all the rumors about him and Arsenal.
I think because he was so central to that team and it was so built around him, it disadvantaged the formation in other areas. There is too much onus put on him and the fact that they are continually looking for an attacking playmaker, and that they’ve never found the right fit, is partly because of how much he insists on taking on for himself, and how much he dictates the type of strike partner he is willing or able to play alongside.
“[Tim Ream] is still a young player with a lot to learn,” Márquez 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.
“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.”
Little did it matter that Márquez perhaps was speaking the truth. Instead it represented a devastating PR nightmare with fans calling for his axing at the end of 2011. And it may have cost the Mexican international what little support he had to begin with in the Red Bulls locker room.
He would never publicly apologize for it.
And so Márquez didn’t go out of his way to warm up to the fanbase over two-and-a-half years – two red cards in the playoffs vs. LA (for throwing the ball at Landon Donovan in 2011) and vs. DC this year (watch here) certainly didn’t help – but the supporters, in turn, never warmed up to him. There were games when his every touch was booed. And that was at Red Bull Arena.
Who knows? Some Dax McCarty-ish hustle may have been enough to keep the mob at bay. At times he was a world-class soccer player, but warming hearts in the stands because he was working hard? Not his style.
Too bad fans will never remember the good (the Red Bulls were 19-9-16 in the matches he played). If not for injuries, and Márquez is the first to admit it, things could have been very different. But his critics weren’t about to cut him any slack.
Red Bulls fans may not have bought it, but Márquez was desperate for New York to succeed and frustrated when it didn’t happen.
“In these three years, we didn’t have a good team,” Márquez said in the wrap-up of the 2012 campaign.
That was the same complaint David Beckham had about his early days with the Galaxy. In fact, Beckham and Márquez had a very similar first few years in MLS. They experienced that same bout of initial malaise that we’ve seen big-name Designated Players go through before they’re completely settled into MLS.
Both Beckham and Márquez had their commitment to their MLS club questioned. Both clashed with local fans. The two also made their occasional excursion to join their respective national teams – Márquez was suspended from El Tri for a controversial party held in Monterrey – and each flirted with potential transfers and loans (the potential of Márquez moving to Brazilian side Flamengo was serious).
But while Beckham landed Bruce Arena and the two subsequently authored a fairytale script, Márquez was left arguing with manager Hans Backe at halftime in the second-to-last MLS match of his career in full view of the cameras.
The Swedish manager never really settled on where to play Márquez, whether in midfield or at center back, but New York's captain and Márquez’s teammate at Barcelona, Thierry Henry, always felt Márquez had to be on the field, and Henry made sure everyone knew it.
“The key for us to win the MLS is Rafael Márquez,” Henry said just before the postseason. “If he’s on form, it’s another game for us.”
Oh, Márquez is still very much on form and he showed it after his presentation with Club León last week. He made sure to deliver the final blow, that final kick out like he did on Salinas in April. In typical Márquez style, he clarified that Mexican soccer is a level above MLS and some reports had him referring to MLS as “amateur.”
Márquez, you see, will never change. Red Bulls fans knew exactly what they were getting back in July 2010. The Red Bulls front office should have known what it was getting.
Perhaps the Red Bulls overestimated the impact Márquez would have on Mexican soccer fans in New York – he’s not as beloved as Mexico’s famous goalscorers and Mexican fans didn’t flock to Red Bull Arena – and they probably underestimated the club’s supporters and their willingness to fully embrace him.
Winning a trophy would have softened Márquez’s image. But as things stand, villain he came, and villain he departed.
And in typical Márquez style, he had to go out leaving us all talking.