Union have their own version of Steve Birnbaum in Richie Marquez

CHESTER, Pa. When the Philadelphia Union faced D.C. United in Friday night’s Heineken Rivalry Week clash at Talen Energy Stadium, both teams were anchored by third-year center backs from California with the potential for stardom.

Of course, one of them D.C. United’s Steve Birnbaum is already far more established, having joined the US national team picture after being picked second in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft.

The other Philadelphia’s Richie Marquez was selected 44th overall in the same draft, coming out of Division III University of Redlands. And yet, his coach and teammates believe that he has similar tools to perhaps be a USMNT-level player and an elite MLS center back, too. 

Marquez scored the stoppage-time, game-winning goal to down D.C. on Friday night and lift the Union to first place in the East.

“For sure, I think that’s a fair comparison,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “Richie flew under the radar a bit more, a Division III soccer player. I think Richie is an example for young kids that you don’t know in your development when it’s going to click, and when you’re going to get your opportunity. He took his opportunity and has run with it. He was a high school football player.”

Perhaps his football-playing roots helped as Marquez has used his size, speed, physicality and what Curitn referred to as his “killer instinct” to unnerve opposing strikers. Most recently, he chased down speedster Dominic Oduro before making a huge open-field slide tackle to help the Union escape Montreal on Saturday with a 1-1 draw vs. the Impact.

It was a play that certainly caught the attention of his teammates.

“You’re looking at a guy who gets matched up twice with Oduro, one of the fastest players in the league, and Richie shuts him down,” Union winger Chris Pontius said. “He’s always up for the battle. He’s a leader on the field and a guy that wants to win.

“He has the potential [to be one of the league’s best center backs]. He’s young. Experience is huge for center backs. I think the sky’s the limit for him.”

Pontius, who’s played with both Birnbaum and Marquez, added that there are “definitely comparisons there,” pointing specifically to how good each one is in the air.

Marquez, though, said he doesn’t try to stack himself up against Birnbaum or any of the other players who were picked ahead of him in the 2014 draft. But naturally, he would love to join Birnbaum in the US center back pool.

“That’s everyone’s dream, right?” he said. “I would want to work to that point. It’s definitely something I think about because I don’t want to set the bar too low for myself.”

It will likely be a steep climb to get to that point, but Curtin doesn’t think it’s a pipe dream, saying that Marquez has the “kind of quality to really push and go to the next level.”

In the meantime, he’s just happy to have him in his corner.

“Kind of the nicest compliment I could give Richie was in our individual meetings with myself and [sporting director] Earnie [Stewart], I said to him … ‘Richie, you’re the kind of kid that if I’m going down a dark alley in a bad neighborhood, I’d want Richie Marquez behind me because you know what you’re going to get,’” Curtin said. “He’ll die for you, he’ll fight for you, he’ll do anything for you. And I would do the same for him. That’s the kind of guy you want to go to battle with.

“I think that he has a really high ceiling. I think he’s gotten so much better with the ball. It’s incredible to see the growth, to see him hit the 40- and 50-yard diagonal balls. … His physical tools are exceptional and he’s really improving. It’s great to watch.”