Red Bulls' investment in Rafael Márquez proves to be huge mistake

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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: It's not me, it's them.

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 preseason MLS predictions, and Márquez was my choice as MLS Defender of the Year. Here's an update on my preseason picks and how they've turned out:

Which team will win MLS Cup? My preseason pick: Los Angeles. Feeling pretty good about this one, considering the Galaxy has the league's best record right now. But Salt Lake is really starting to make a move, and it doesn't seem to matter who's on the field for RSL. Its best player, Javier Morales, is only now about to return after a broken ankle, and Salt Lake obliterated New York on the road on Wednesday without suspended captain Kyle Beckerman. The Western Conference playoffs should be fantastic with L.A., Salt Lake and Seattle (or perhaps Dallas) involved.

Who will be MVP? My preseason pick: Álvaro Saborío, Salt Lake. Well, I missed on this one, though Saborío is starting to heat up after a bad first half of the season. Sabo didn't score his first MLS goal until June 25, but he now has nine and could make a late run for the Golden Boot, considering he's only three behind leaders Thierry Henry and Landon Donovan. (Saborío was also my preseason pick for Golden Boot.) My current ranking for MVP candidates: 1. Donovan. 2. Beckerman. 3. Brek Shea, Dallas. 4. Mauro Rosales, Seattle. 5. Brad Davis, Houston. (It's hard to include Henry as an MVP candidate as long as New York appears headed to miss the playoffs.)

Who will be Rookie of the Year? My preseason pick: Perry Kitchen, D.C. United. This one is still pretty wide open. Kitchen, the No. 3 overall pick in this year's SuperDraft, has been fairly steady while starting 23 games, playing both at center back and right back. Several other rookie defenders have made an impact, from Rich Balchan (18 starts for Columbus in various positions) to A.J. Soares (27 starts for New England) to Zarek Valentin (22 starts for Chivas USA) to Jalil Anibaba (22 starts for Chicago). But the award tends to go to attackers, and the candidates in that group include Houston's Will Bruin (5 goals, 21 starts), Kansas City's CJ Sapong (4 goals, 4 assists, 21 starts) and Portland's Darlington Nagbe (2 goals, 3 assists, 18 starts). This could change dramatically in the coming weeks, but my top five for now are: 1. Sapong. 2. Bruin. 3. Soares. 4. Nagbe. 5. Kitchen.

Who will be Defender of the Year? My preseason pick: Márquez. Whiffed on this one. So much seemed clear in the preseason, especially the consensus that New York would be the best team in the East. But the league's two best defensive teams are (far and away) Salt Lake and Los Angeles, so here's my top five right now: 1. Nat Borchers, Salt Lake. 2. Omar González, Los Angeles. 3. Jamison Olave, Salt Lake. 4. George John, Dallas. 5. Carlos Valdés, Philadelphia. (Chad Marshall of Columbus could still muscle his way in here.)

Who is your MLS Cup dark horse? My pick: Kansas City. Gotta say I wasn't feeling too good about this one midway through the season when K.C. was in last place in the East. But a run of success at home has put Sporting in position to make a playoff run and fulfill my SI mag prediction that it would make the MLS Cup final. There's a ways to go yet, but we'll see.