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Marquez relishes MLS challenge

HARRISON, N.J. -- Why now? Why would 31-year-old Rafael Márquez --captain of Mexico, Barcelona veteran, a player who can still compete at the highest level -- turn down interest from clubs all over Europe to join MLS's New York Red Bulls? That was the question I put to Márquez on Tuesday during a quiet moment after his presentation as the newest member of MLS's most upwardly mobile team.

"If I stayed in Europe maybe I would have played for two years more, and afterward I would be looking again for another team," said Márquez, who added that he signed for three-and-a-half years with New York through the end of the 2013 season. "In Europe with Barcelona I have won all the titles. Coming to New York is something different, something new, in a league that's growing. That's what motivated me."

Talk about a game-changer for MLS. In a period of three weeks New York has signed two big names who two seasons ago played major roles in Barcelona's European trophy rampage: Thierry Henry and now Márquez. Both had seen their playing time dwindle in the Nou Camp last season, but both appear to still have plenty to give on the field.

And that's where these moves will help most: the field. I'm not convinced that Márquez will cause an extended attendance spike for the Red Bulls among Mexican-American soccer fans in the New York City area, but he will bring an immediate talent upgrade to a team that already has Henry and Juan Pablo Ángel up front. Coach Hans Backe says he'll use Márquez at the base of a diamond in the central midfield, a change from his days as a central defender for Barcelona but certainly a position that is within the player's skill set. (Márquez played a similar position for Mexico in the recent World Cup.)

The process that sent Márquez to New York was a long one. "Almost a year ago I had contact with the people from Red Bull where they asked me about coming," he told me. "But it was just as I was extending my contract with Barcelona, so we decided to leave the door open for the future. Knowing that I didn't play much last year with Barcelona, we revisited the offer from Red Bull, and from there the negotiations began."

One key to the process was that Barcelona (as with Henry) let Márquez go on a free transfer, even though he still had two years left on his contract there. "The club let me go for free because there is a very good relationship between the club and us," Márquez explained.

That's good news for MLS, which hasn't paid a transfer fee for any of its major designated-player acquisitions, including Márquez, Henry or David Beckham. "There are changes going on in European soccer from a financial perspective," said MLS commissioner Don Garber. "Many teams are struggling financially, some of them deeply in debt. Barcelona a year ago had a massive profit. This year they had a massive loss. All of them are trying to manage through what their budgets are and where certain players fit and how they spend their money."

"The days of wild spending and capturing every player they can and seeing if it works are probably over in Europe. That will provide us with some benefit as many players like Márquez and Henry are looking to the United States."

Márquez is fully aware of the sad-sack, trophyless history of MLS's New York franchise -- "It's an important challenge to be able to win the first title for this team, whether it's this year or next" -- and that players from Mexico's national team have made little impact in MLS over the years. Cuauhtémoc Blanco remains the only one to have been voted to the MLS Best XI, and not one member of El Tri has ever won an MLS Cup trophy.

But Márquez should have plenty of motivation. One more reason: He told me he definitely wants to keep playing for the Mexican national team, perhaps even through World Cup 2014. Márquez has scored in two World Cups ('06 and '10) and been a fixture for El Tri in three. But he's also the source of a paradox for U.S. fans: How could a player who has been so classy over the years for Barcelona turn into a cheap-shot artist on two occasions against the U.S., earning red cards for dirty plays against Cobi Jones in World Cup '02 and Tim Howard in a qualifier for World Cup '10?

I asked Márquez about it on Tuesday.

"I think that losing against your enemy always hurts," he said in Spanish. "I don't like losing, and I lose my head easily when I don't like losing an important game. But by now this is part of my experience, part of history." He added that he hopes fans of the Red Bulls who are also U.S. fans will embrace his work ethic and efforts to win a championship for New York.

In the end, that's how this new version of New York with Márquez, Henry and Ángel will be measured. But whether it's through marquee player acquisitions or the completion of the $200 million Red Bull Arena or their signings of mid-level players, the Europeans who now run the Red Bulls are going a long ways toward answering the skepticism that foreign management can't succeed in the unique world of MLS with its strange salary caps and roster limits.

"Having been able to stabilize things mostly defensively, we've produced a team that could compete with anybody," says general manager Erik Soler of his team, which currently sits in second place in the East. "But we didn't have a team that was sort of better than anyone else. That's what we're starting to look at now: A team that's actually better than the other teams. If it works out, I'm very confident we have set a new standard for this league, that this team will be better than any other team."

A successful MLS team in New York? Now that would be something new.

1. U.S. roster to face Brazil. U.S. coach BobBradley released his roster for the Americans' friendly against Brazil next Tuesday at the new Meadowlands stadium in New Jersey. It has 14 players from the World Cup team, including Landon Donovan, Tim Howard, Michael Bradley and captain Carlos Bocanegra. Missing from the 18-man roster, however, are ClintDempsey, Jozy Altidore, Oguchi Onyewu, JayDeMerit, Stuart Holden, Ricardo Clark, JoséTorres, DaMarcusBeasley and CharlieDavies. Most of those missing are players who are either out of contract, have uncertain club futures or have a good reason to remain with their clubs during preseason.

The most intriguing inclusion is JermaineJones, the German-American holding midfielder for Schalke who decided last year to play for the U.S. instead of Germany. Jones recently returned to action in the Bundesliga after a long injury layoff and now get his first chance to play for the Stars & Stripes.

2. Clint Mathis set to retire. An American soccer original is about to retire from the sport. The man known as Cletus announced on Tuesday that his final game would be this Saturday's friendly between the L.A. Galaxy and Real Madrid at the Rose Bowl. Few American players have ever had the run Mathis did in 2000 and '01, and while he didn't fulfill his vast potential Mathis did get an important goal for the U.S. in World Cup '02. Here's a lengthy interview I had with him back in '09.

3. Sayonara Curt Onalfo. D.C. United fired first-year coach Onalfo on Wednesday, making Onalfo the "winner" of this year's Sack Race in MLS. Ben Olsen was named his replacement on an interim basis. It has been a disastrous season in D.C., but I'm still slightly surprised that United didn't give Onalfo more time. The team's fans may be wondering when accountability for United's stretch of disappointing seasons will rest on higher-ups Kevin Payne and Dave Kasper, but it's Onalfo that takes the hit for now. This is pure speculation on my part, but I do wonder if Onalfo's dismissal means United is pursuing Bob Bradley as a replacement.

4. Champions League success? After a discouraging opening week in the CONCACAF Champions League, MLS teams have done better this week with Toronto and Seattle both advancing to group play by getting the results they needed in Central America on Tuesday. The big challenge comes on Wednesday for the Los Angeles Galaxy, which will be trying to turn around a 1-4 loss at home to Puerto Rico last week (8 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel, Galavisión). I'm not counting on it, but the Galaxy could at least save some dignity with a win of some sort in the Caribbean.

5. Cosmos return. Are the New York Cosmos making a comeback? There was plenty of pub for the announcement over the weekend (which included Pelé and Giorgio Chinaglia) that a group headed by Paul Kemsley (www.nycosmos.com) has bought the trademark for the Cosmos and has big plans. Those already include an affiliation with a New York City youth club (B.W. Gottschee) to form a Cosmos Academy and the purchase of the Copa NYC tournament, but the ultimate goal, the group says, is to own a New York franchise in Major League Soccer.

I'll look forward to learning more about the new Cosmos, but what I'm picking up so far is interesting. The "Director of Soccer" is Terry Byrne, the close friend and former personal manager of David Beckham. Byrne was hired as a paid consultant to the Galaxy in late 2007 and recruited Ruud Gullit to coach Los Angeles in 2008.

Byrne's role, of course, prompts the question of whether the Cosmos might be the MLS team that Beckham uses to exercise his option to buy into the league at a below-market price as an owner after his playing career is over. When I asked MLS commissioner Garber about that on Tuesday, this is what he said: "That's a coincidence. David has an option on the 20th team. That option has limitations to it. But I would not read anything into Terry Byrne's involvement with the Cosmos."

As for the 20th MLS team that Garber hopes will be a second New York team (starting play as early as 2013), the commissioner cautioned that the Cosmos isn't the only group that has an interest in owning that team. "I spoke to Jeff Wilpon [on Monday]," Garber said. "I've had no shortage of interested investors, including some people of real substance. The only two groups that have been public are the Cosmos and the Wilpons."

And Garber's view on the Cosmos? "They've got a plan to relaunch that brand, to launch it as an authentic soccer brand," he said. "To do that they're going to need a team. Otherwise it's just a lifestyle brand trying to capitalize on the soccer market. So I know at some point in their future they'd like to be involved in New York. But we're a long ways away from finalizing anything in New York ... The brand is not going to drive the success of that club. Ownership and facility will drive it. Then we can figure out what's the right brand connection. If the Cosmos are an important part of that, either as owners, investors or as a brand, then we'll continue to talk to them about that."

6. Chivas one step away. Capping a week that saw the opening of its breathtaking new stadium, Chivas de Guadalajara beat Universidad of Chile on Tuesday to reach the final of the Copa Libertadores. It still seems odd to me that Mexican clubs are allowed to compete in the club championships of both CONCACAF and CONMEBOL. Could we see two Mexican teams at the Club World Cup one of these years? Why exactly does FIFA allow this to happen?

7. Upcoming U.S. national team games. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati tells me the U.S.-Brazil game on Tuesday won't be the only national-team game in the remainder of 2010. "Beyond the Brazil game I could imagine us playing two or three more games this fall," Gulati says. The FIFA website lists a friendly between the U.S. and Poland on October 9 in the New York City area.

8. Whither Freddy Adu? After the Greek club Aris showed no interest in bringing Adu back on loan this season, the Swiss club Sion had Adu in for a tryout but has now passed. At this point the best thing for Adu appears to be a return to MLS, where he could get some playing time and hope to jump-start his career. Now 21, Adu still has one more season on his contract with Portugal's Benfica. Would a loan to MLS be workable? For his sake, one has to hope so.

9. Don't sleep on Real Salt Lake. With Los Angeles inexplicably tanking lately, keep an eye on the defending champions. Salt Lake is just six points behind L.A. in the West with a game in hand, and RSL is essentially unbeatable at home these days. Coach Jason Kreis and GM Garth Lagerwey have built a winner in the Wasatch without going the designated player route.

10. This week's movie rec:I Am Love. I've always been a fan of British actress Tilda Swinton, who manages to go through this whole film speaking Italian (and a little Russian) but not a lick of English. I'm still not sure what explains the movie title, but you should see it for the beautiful shots alone. Every camera angle is carefully thought-out, and it's easily one of the coolest looking pictures I've seen in a long time.

11. Well-deserved. Congratulations to Paul Gardner of Soccer America (and other publications) for winning the 2010 Colin Jose Media Award by the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Gardner is one of the legends in U.S. soccer writing, and there isn't a more deserving recipient of the award.

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