At first it sounded like a joke. After being booed by the home fans whenever he touched the ball Wednesday night, after making hand gestures back at those jeering fans, after seeing his New York Red Bulls sink to new depths in a 3-1 loss to Salt Lake, New York defender Rafael Márquez could have raised his hand and accepted some responsibility for the biggest train wreck in Major League Soccer.
Instead he blamed his teammates.
"I'm focusing on really performance at my highest level. That doesn't mean that the whole back line can perform at that same level, so that's a problem," Márquez told reporters through an interpreter, adding: "I think this is a team game, and unfortunately there isn't an equal level between my teammates and I." In other words:
Just when you thought it was impossible for things to get worse in Red Bull Land, they have. Márquez not only threw his teammates under the bus, creating what will no doubt be a contaminated locker room, but he also got it completely wrong. Despite being the third-highest-paid player in MLS -- at a guaranteed $4.6 million a year, or $1.28 million more than the entire Salt Lake team -- Márquez has turned into an albatross around the neck of New York, which is on the hook for two more years of his contract.
Márquez was directly involved in allowing Salt Lake's third goal in the first 20 minutes, in which Fabian Espíndola knifed through the heart of New York's defense unmarked. The Mexican national-teamer was only part of the problem for the Red Bulls -- central defense partner Tim Ream made a horrible gaffe to hand RSL the second goal -- but Márquez is expected to be the veteran leader based on his experience at Barcelona and in three World Cups.
Instead he has played in only 15 of New York's 29 games due mainly to national-team commitments. He has looked uninterested, too slow as a back-line defender and too careless as a holding central midfielder. What figured to be one of the league's best center back pairings with Ream has turned so sour that the gallows humorists among New York fans have wondered if Márquez was sent by Mexico to torpedo one of the U.S. national team's top prospects.
"Clueless," said team broadcaster Shep Messing when describing the Red Bulls' defense. "Hopeless," said assistant coach Jan Halvor Halversen at halftime.
These days New York's defense plays better when Márquez isn't on the field, as was the case in the team's 1-0 win last week at Dallas. That was only one of the Red Bulls' three victories in their last 22 league games, and given Márquez's latest toxic comments it's hard to imagine that coach Hans Backe can start him on Saturday when New York hosts Portland. With the top 10 teams in MLS reaching the playoffs, New York is currently in 12th based on points per game, while Portland is 11th. The Red Bulls have just five games left to make a move.
What's mystifying about the 32-year-old Márquez's slide is that he's still playing well for Mexico's national team. He's a respected professional, a good guy and a proud competitor. But big-money contracts, lead-dog responsibility and the patience required with inexperienced teammates put MLS' Designated Players in new and unaccustomed positions, and Márquez has handled it poorly. At this point you have to wonder if New York will find a way to offload him after this season, even if it means a loan deal to someplace far, far away.
Truth be told, I didn't see this coming either. I went back and looked at my