Rafa Marquez concludes MLS divorce

December 13, 2012

With the New York Red Bulls eager to ship him out and his reputation blemished after a poor spell in MLS, Rafael Márquez finally cut his losses and made the move he should have made when he left Barcelona after the 2010 World Cup.

He returned to Mexico.

The former El Tri captain concluded his two-and-a-half year spell with the Red Bulls on Thursday morning and struck a deal to join Liga MX side Club Léon later in the day.

By settling up the remainder of his deal with the Red Bulls, Márquez belatedly concluded his American nightmare. He leaves MLS with a full wallet and the realization that he should have looked past the paycheck as he contemplated his departure from top-flight soccer.


Márquez never came to grips with the task at hand and the terms of his agreement in Harrison. He never accepted the fact that he now shared the field with players of lesser technical ability (and Thierry Henry, of course). Like a few of his high-profile peers, he never embraced the implicit burdens of being a Designated Player – the unspoken off-the-field requirements to build the league and treat its executives, officials and players with respect – or figured out a way to make himself comfortable in his new situation. He never managed to solve his lingering injury concerns.

His own limitations and his scant influence on matches exacerbated the inherent issues. Márquez lacked the dexterity and the physical capabilities to cope with the peculiar rigors of MLS. Instead of excelling at a lower standard, he failed to adjust to its demands. Opposing players closed him down quickly when he featured in midfield and exposed his lack of pace when he operated in central defense. He bristled at his treatment and looked more like a liability than a lynchpin when he played.

The unexpected indignities contributed to his overt and unbecoming displays of petulance. Márquez belittled his teammates when he played poorly. He feigned ignorance of a language he knew well when he wanted to sidestep responsibility. He lashed out at opponents when his team couldn't defeat them. He scythed down quicker players when he couldn't catch them.

For a player of Márquez's ego, pedigree and talent, the entire scenario offered a humbling affront. And yet the situation persisted because both sides tied themselves to a deal which few, if any, other clubs could or would match. New York examined Márquez's expensive contract (he received $4,600,000 in guaranteed compensation in 2012, according to MLS Players Union documents) and permitted him to run amok for two and a half years instead of paying him off. It took yet another executive house cleaning and the appointment of no-nonsense Andy Roxburgh as sporting director to finally usher Márquez out the door.

Márquez's next destination appears far more suitable than his last one, though he will inevitably face questions about why he chose to sign with Léon instead of securing a return to boyhood club Atlas. The physical deficiencies exposed in MLS won't matter quite as much in a technical league more focused on dropping off in midfield and treasuring possession. His new club prefers an ambitious and dynamic approach that should suit Márquez's ample abilities nicely. Even at 33, Márquez possesses the necessary tools – the deft touch, the neat distribution out of the back and the raking diagonal balls on the counter – to thrive in such an environment.

Unfortunately for Márquez, this decision comes about two-and-a-half years too late. All of the money in the world cannot wipe away the stain created by the ill-fated spell with New York. Perhaps Márquez thought MLS would offer fewer challenges than it did or that he could easily overcome any hurdles by merely stepping onto the field. A quick glance toward the struggles former Mexico defender Duilio Davino faced at FC Dallas back in 2008 would have warned him that this particular move carried some risk.

Instead of buckling down to confront the potential problems with a modest dose of humility, he treated them with disdain and suffered the consequences.

Márquez will likely embrace the fresh start offered when Léon presents him on Friday. But, in the back of his mind as he listens to the praise showered upon him, he might just wonder how much his career and his reputation would have benefited if he had rejected the Red Bulls' overtures to play in a league that never suited him and chosen to take this step a couple of years ago.