By Andrew Villegas
Paging Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl, I have the topic and title for your next book: The Márquez Experiment.
In a lot of ways, the Rafa Márquez experiment in NY was a more important experiment than the David Beckham experiment was for MLS. Márquez was supposed to bring in Mexicans — a huge untapped fan base just hopping up and down in the tunnel to step out and support an MLS side, the El Tri fans that bring with them big money and an insatiable appetite for football, that other Big Green Monster that USMNT fans love to hate.
Mexican fans, along with soccer-mom families and supporters groups were supposed to be the holy triumvirate to take MLS to the profitability promise land. But there’s an inherent conflict among the three. Supporters and Mexican fans like to cuss, families don’t. Supporters groups and families largely support the USMNT, Mexican fans don’t. So, how do you expect three completely disparate groups to harmonize into one big happy family in MLS stadia around the United States? Moreover, how are you everything to everyone?
At its least, The Márquez Experiment was supposed to be a test of if these three things could exist in the rafters in MLS arenas, especially in Red Bull Arena. And if you read many press accounts (including by Wahl himself as well as by others, notably at ESPN and in local New York media here and here) the gamble has not paid off, and they think it’s unlikely to ever do so. Excuse me, that is, the $4.6 million gamble, $1.28 million more than all of Real Salt Lake’s roster makes, Wahl points out. And Márquez’s time is likely coming to an end, despite just signing a multiyear deal in summer 2010.
At the time of his signing, Márquez said, “Despite having the opportunity to fulfill my contract with Barcelona [through June 2012], coming to New York and playing in Major League Soccer was a chance that I could not refuse.” But his tune was different this week: “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. I think this is a team game and unfortunately there isn’t an equal level between my teammates and I.” Oops, here’s your 1-game suspension.
(After hearing Márquez’s comments from this week, go back and read this interview with the NYT’s Jack Bell for some telling moments of optimism in better times — May.)
He’s not the first superstar to levy criticism at MLS and its players. Thierry Henry, who faces his own criticism from fans fed up that the New York Yankees of the MLS aren’t living up to their high expectations, has levied criticism at MLS and expressed mild frustration with manager Hans Backe on occasion. But if he’s been frustrated with teammates and their skill or lack thereof, he’s kept to himself stinging comments like the ones Márquez made, even if he seems to sulk about Harrison, N.J., sometimes.
It’s hard to believe there are many American fans anywhere that are actively rooting for Márquez to fail; American soccer fans are privy to the club/country arrangement the best players have to balance and seem to accept the sometimes conflicting nature of the sport that such differing allegiances bring. But, there are also likely not too many non-NYRB fans that have heartache over the situation — they may have heartburn and indigestion, maybe, but not ache. That view ignores a bigger issue.
If you’re a USMNT fan exclusive of also being a NYRB supporter, you’re probably laughing, but if you care about MLS doing well, The Márquez Experiment is troubling for the precedent it sets, or rather, the precedent it continues: If you’re a top class player and you get big eyes at the cash and American marketing opportunity that MLS flashes at you, you now have another worry to add to your list about a move stateside.
It raises a bunch of questions that great players considering an MLS move have to ask themselves: If Beckham, Márquez and Henry can’t come here and thrive, how can you? Is it a risk you’re willing to take?
And MLS would be wise to do its own soul-searching: Is Márquez regretting the move to the U.S., and will he bad-mouth MLS all over the globe if he goes out on loan?
But the most pressing question of all may be: Will the Mexican fan base, that most rabid head on the Cerberus of fandom in North America, abandon MLS if El Capitán does?
Andrew Villegas is Senior MLS Writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @ReporterAndrew.