Emperor’s Court: Rafa’s Redemption, Take Two

Image credit: DailyHarrison.com

Rafa Marquez had a rough 2011, and yes, that is an understatement. Red Bull fans skewered the Mexican icon, questioning his effort on the field, particularity after witnessing his impressive exploits with the Mexican National team. They held his commitment in doubt due to the fact that he only featured in 21 matches for the club, missing encounters due to injuries, yellow card accumulation, and behavioral suspensions. That last infraction was perhaps his most damning as he disparaged the ability of his teammates while singling out his line mate Tim Ream in the process.

Riding this wave of ill sentiment, Marquez entered into a late regular season encounter against the Los Angeles Galaxy a hated man. Taking the pitch at Red Bull Arena, his name was thoroughly booed by the faithful followers of the club. His early touches were met with a vitriol usually reserved for the Philadelphia Union’s of the world.

Indeed, Marquez was a marked man.

Through it all, however, the former Mexican captain began to turn the spectators around. He played a fierce role as a sweeper. He was an asset on the defensive end, and a distributor on offense. Slowly, the boos were muted as Marquez changed the tide in his favor through his performance alone.

An impressive showing was capped off with a gorgeous searching cross from midfield which found the foot of Thierry Henry, who calmly tapped the ball into control and lobbed the sealer over the head of a helpless Donovan Ricketts. Henry celebrated the goal by calling Marquez over. The Mexican captain stood in front of the South Ward along with the team captain, and kissed his badge to the elation of the fans. He was later subbed out of the match to a standing ovation.

This was Rafa’s Redemption.

The good vibes would only last so long. Meeting the Galaxy again at Red Bull Arena for the first leg of a home and home playoff series, Marquez lost his cool. After the team lost in stunning fashion to Los Angeles, 1-0, Marquez ignited a post match brawl that earned him a red card and an additional two game suspension, effectively ending his 2011 campaign. Without Marquez, the Red Bulls would go on to lose against the Galaxy in LA, effectively ending their season as well.

Fast forward to 2012. A reflective, rejuvenated Rafa Marquez has been the talk of the offseason amongst Red Bull insiders. He took a pair of weeks to train with FC Barcelona prior to the team’s official training camp began at Montclair University this January. Once back in New Jersey, he dawned his hardy winter gear and was visibly one of the most active players on the pitch. He continued his good form in Mexico and Arizona, serving a distributive role from the midfield, a mentoring role with his younger teammates off the field and a proper ambassador’s role with the team throughout various press functions. Speaking of which, he has even been open to speaking to the media again after shutting them down due to the “Reamgate” fiasco.

The one stain on his ledger for 2012 is that the sins of his past followed him into the new season. Marquez was forced to miss a pair of matches due to that postseason suspension, keeping him from participating in the FC Dallas opener or the RSL match this past Saturday.

Looking back, it may have been a blessing in disguise.

In that time, the Red Bull’s midfield has become a void. Teemu Tainio has served as a fifth defender for a defense which simply has not been able to get themselves together, Dax McCarty has failed to be the type of two way player the Red Bulls envisioned, and Victor Palsson had a howler of a debut against Salt Lake.

Winless in two, and with the season opener coming this weekend, Marquez couldn’t have asked for a better time to debut. The way this campaign has played out, he can be New York’s knight in shining armor. With his suspension long forgotten, forgiveness can be earned by simply performing at a level Marquez is known to possess. Early indications, whether in training or with the Mexican National team, show that he still has the ability to positively influence the game. And judging by the way this midfield has performed, they are in desperate need of a leader to help them dig out of a deep rut.

His connection with Henry is undeniable. His ability to spring Dane Richards effectively is proven. His distribution from the midfield line was the one thing that enabled Coach Hans Backe to successfully play this “empty bucket” 4-4-2 style to any effect to begin with.

Does he have his faults? You don’t need me to tell you he does. But if he wants redemption, he couldn’t have asked for a better time to get it. New Yorkers accept players, warts and all, so long as they help a team win. A solid performance and a victory can begin a healing process that can erase his colorful past. The team has seen just how weak they are without Marquez in the middle. On Sunday, Rafa has the chance to prove how indispensable he is as well.

Now imagine that. Rafa Marquez … the hero.

Hey, it could happen.

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