By J Hutcherson - WASHINGTON, DC (Dec 13, 2012) US Soccer Players – When an elite player doesn’t work out it’s easy to blame the player or the club that signed him. It’s normally trickier to assess blame between both. Rafa Marquez is an elite player by any standard, but especially in Major League Soccer. The New York Red Bulls no longer get the benefit of the doubt in any personnel move, whether player, coach, or front office. Where Thursday’s announcement that they’ve cut ties with Marquez leaves the club is yet another in a series of open question that need answers between now and the start of the season in early March.
New York as a problem is a central tenant of Major League Soccer’s story. The League never cracked New York in the way they’ve seen success in the Los Angeles and the Chicago market. That success is relative, waxing and waning depending on how those teams perform with both pushed by soccer-specificity to outlying parts of their urban areas. Chicago started strong before struggling. The Galaxy’s success is at least somewhat tempered by the inability of LA’s second team Chivas USA to find an audience.
For New York, the problems are almost categorically different. This is a team that struggles historically to center itself within a market. All the problems with New York area pro sports are manifest with MLS’s club. The original MetroStars had significant issues connecting with the local area. Were they a New York team playing in New Jersey like the New York City National Football League clubs? Were they a regional team that should be drawing from as far away as Connecticut? Was the idea that this team should replicate the drawing power of the Cosmos in the stadium where that team used to play in front of big crowds?
The MetroStars weren’t the first team to blame a venue for the bulk of their problems, and they won’t be the last. Along with the soccer-specificity issue, pushing for venue control, smaller capacity, and a field maintained for soccer rather than gridiron football, there was that overarching identification issue. Was this a local team for suburban New Jersey, a copy of what the NFL does in the broader New York City market or something else entirely?
Anschutz Entertainment Group’s rumored and eventually confirmed option on a New York City MLS team answered part of that question before that option expired. The League itself considered New York City its own market, with the MetroStars existing in the same space but not necessarily occupying it. Unlike the LA example, the long-term goal wasn’t two teams playing in the same stadium. IT was two teams within a few miles of each other with distinct identities. Nothing new for the greater New York market, but certainly different for Major League Soccer.
What MLS New York really meant became an open question. MLS answered it by publicly talking up a team within the five boroughs, now the attempt to build a stadium at the old World’s Fair site in Queens. As we talked about a few weeks ago, that’s the League moving into the other established area for outdoor professional sports in the New York market. Fair enough, but there’s still the nagging questions for the New York area club that already exists.
The New York Red Bulls spend as much money as any MLS team and more than most. They spend it on everything from buying out partners that didn’t share their specific vision of soccer-specificity to seeing that vision through with Red Bull Arena. They spend on players, still a distinction in MLS. They spend on coaching in an attempt to put a different product on the field than MLS business as usual. What they don’t have is the committed fan base to fill that stadium and make the broader statement on their behalf about their team in their market.
It’s in this environment that Rafa Marquez played out his MLS tenure. Signed in August 2010, this was a World Cup player with the highest European pedigree joining an MLS club where he wouldn’t be the marquee player. That’s new for this League. Thierry Henry signed a month earlier, the face for Red Bulls soccer. Marquez was different. He was more than simply an outreach to the fan base that supports Mexico or those that are only interested in MLS when it features players formerly employed by elite European clubs. Spending designated player money on a defender, the Red Bulls sent a message of intent.
As a team, that intent went unfulfilled. It also ran parallel with the League office’s renewed commitment to placing a club in what they define as the New York market. With that in mind, the last few seasons of Red Bulls soccer become a test case for their brand in the marketplace. It’s tough to position a team in practice against one in theory, but that’s where the Red Bulls find themselves.
2013 becomes another season where they’re trying it again. For all the complaints centered on Marquez, he contributed greatly for New York. That’s going to be tough to replace, especially on deadline.
J Hutcherson has been writing about soccer since 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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