HARRISON, N.J. — The signing of Mexican National Team captain Rafael Márquez on Monday by the Red Bulls ushers in a new era for the club—and the league—perhaps even more than any other player in MLS’ history.
Márquez may not have the World Cup accolades of Thierry Henry, but he comes to New York with an impressive résumé and the respect and recognition of Hispanics across the nation. He leaves Barcelona, perhaps the top club in the world, and joins MLS very much in his prime. He’s a player with savvy and skill on the ball but is also a tenacious defender who is not afraid to get physical. (Just ask Cobi Jones.)
While acquiring a player like David Beckham or Henry is important for MLS, Márquez brings another dimension that the other two marquee signings simply can’t. The longtime El Tri captain’s resonance with Mexican fans puts him in a unique category, one that is perhaps matched only by the signing of Cuauhtémoc Blanco by the Chicago Fire in 2007.
But, unlike Blanco, Márquez arrives still at the peak of his gifts, judging from his solid appearances in South Africa in June. He has played club soccer at the highest level and won in La Liga and the UEFA Champions League. Arguably the most successful player ever to come from Mexico, he was pursued by top clubs in the English Premier League and Serie A before signing a contract with MLS.
Now, the Red Bulls have three designated players on their roster. Coach Hans Backe has the luxury of fielding one of the most star-studded Starting XIs in American soccer since the Cosmos sides of the 1970s.
The impact of Márquez, an icon to Mexican soccer fans, will certainly be felt off the field, but it is on the field where he will ultimately be judged. In this case, he is again a unique proposition.
Designated players have nearly all been attacking players such as Juan Pablo Angel, Henry and Freddie Ljungberg. Beckham was pushed into an attacking mode rather than a traditional winger when he joined Los Angeles.
As a holding midfielder who will play at the bottom of the midfield diamond, Márquez won’t light up the box score with goals and assists, but, just as he has done for seven years with Barcelona, he will do the little things that make a team win. Such is the importance and magnitude of his play that New York are willing to invest a three-year contract on a player who will never, ever crack the top 10 list for any offensive category in the league’s rankings.
If Henry’s signing showed New York’s commitment to entertaining, attacking soccer and international star power, then Márquez’s signing show’s the club’s commitment to their many Hispanic fans and to capturing their first piece of real hardware.