Rafael Marquez likely did not plan to leave himself with only a puncher's chance at playing meaningful soccer again in 2011.
In the waning moments of the Red Bulls' 1-0 loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy at Red Bull Arena in the first leg of the MLS Playoffs Western Conference semifinal round, Marquez came as close as any of his teammates at finding the back of the net for an equalizer.
He picked up a Thierry Henry deflection of a Joel Lindpere cross near the arc in the 91st minute and fired a shot through traffic that a diving Galaxy 'keeper Josh Saunders somehow punched back out. Henry put the rebound off the woodwork, but the moment to draw level with the 2011 Supporters Shield winners in stoppage time came and went with Marquez.
Then Marquez himself came and went from the series entirely. Referee Alex Prus blew the whistle four minutes after Marquez's scoring chance and with the ball at the frustrated Mexican defender's feet, which left Marquez venting his frustrating by throwing the ball at Galaxy midfielder Landon Donovan.
Galaxy forward Adam Cristman responded with a swing at Marquez, triggering a brawl near center circle that concluded with both sides restraining their players, Red Bulls center back Stephen Keel on the ground, and Marquez as well as with L.A. midfielder Juninho receiving red cards and automatic one-game suspensions to be served in the second leg for their roles in the melee.
For the Red Bulls, they will largely try to downplay the significance of the scuffle. Most of them did not see what happened, while what happened went down so fast that few players were in a position to respond meaningfully. Even Keel tried to downplay his own role by describing his involvement as getting caught up in the heat of the moment.
"I’m not too sure exactly, tensions were high; you can see it’s a playoff game," said Keel. "You got two teams battling it out for 90 minutes, you know both teams want to win, at the end there is a little scuffle, nothing major. I think someone comes in to break it up and everything; I just got knocked in the mouth a little bit – nothing major. It’s not a big deal."
Marquez fell in the melee's closing moments due to a phantom punch from no one in particular, but the damage he feigned will still be felt by his side over the next few days. New York now heads to the Home Depot Center on Thursday (11 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN3, ESPN Deportes) down one goal on aggregate and against a Galaxy side that is unbeaten at home. They make the trip just eight days after opening their postseason campaign in Dallas, and now must do so without a key starter and defensive stalwart in Marquez.
As Donovan implied in his post-game comments, the melee awoke a sleeping giant in the Galaxy to the Red Bulls' so-called "cynical soccer" style.
"In all my years in this league, I have not played against a cheaper team than that," Donovan said to Brian Straus of the Sporting News. "We've seen that stuff all year."
They will get to see that "stuff" one more time this Thursday in the second leg of the semifinal round. They just won't see Marquez in the lineup.
And unless the Red Bulls can raise their form to the Galaxy's level at home, no one else will see Marquez in 2011, either.
Get Back. A David Beckham lob ball played a crucial role to enable Mike Magee getting behind the Red Bulls back line and into position for the volley that would become the game's only goal. The role Robbie Keane played remains to be seen.
Replays reflected that either Magee or Keane may have been offside when Beckham pushed the ball up from a free kick, which the Red Bulls' back four picked up in an attempt to trap the Irish striker. However, the action followed a sprinting Magee and left the likes of Keel and Tim Ream on their heels as Keane drew their attention away. Red Bulls coach Hans Backe did not like how the goal came about, but believes his defense needs to be ready for every possible scenario.
"It’s a little tricky on the goal," said Backe. "First, Keane was offside, but I think we have seven guys raise their hand and call for an offside, and of course you can’t do it. And then it was either Magee or (Todd) Dunivant who scored, came as a late runner. You can’t give away a goal like this, you just have to be more sharp. It’s a frustrating goal to concede."
Immovable Object. New York struggled to keep many of their numerous scoring chances on target, but even the balls that found the net couldn't find their way past an effective Josh Saunders, whose fingertip save on a looping Keel header and a derailed Dane Richards run were just a few of his many efforts to loom large over the Red Bulls attack.
The Galaxy netminder collected five saves en route to a clean sheet in the first leg, but his performance wasn't enough to leave Thierry Henry impressed.
"He had one great reflex, other than that he didn’t do much," said Henry. "He saved the ball from Joel Lindpere, after that, I think Dane (Richards) could have done better with his one-against-one. (Saunders) had a good game, but the way they were defending was very good. They were blocking shots, (Landon) Donovan coming back and saving goals sometimes, Becks (David Beckham) and some other players."
One. Henry may not have been impressed with Saunders's efforts on Sunday, but it wasn't as if his side tested the Galaxy 'keeper for prolonged periods. Both New York and Los Angeles took tenuous holds on the run of play all afternoon, but the Red Bulls struggled to create prolonged pressure on the opposing net. Only one of the New York's shots on target occurred before halftime while the Red Bulls' attacking players crashed the net with impunity for only a few fleeting moments after halftime.
Unlike regular season matches, that momentum carries over to Thursday's rematch at the Home Depot Center whether the Red Bulls want it to or not. Stephen Keel takes solace in knowing that it's only a one-goal deficit with no away-goal tiebreaker, meaning they can still push their postseason progress forward with a strong finish against the Galaxy.
"We look at it like it’s a 180 minute match and we are at half-time, right down we are down one-nill," said Keel. "Obviously being at home we wanted to get a better result, but it’s one of those things we got to go to L.A., once again with our backs against the wall. We got the second-half – 90 minutes and we got to get a win. It’s as simple as that."
Jockeying for Trouble. A tough tackle against FC Dallas left Jan Gunnar Solli out of the starting XI against the Galaxy on Sunday, but the Red Bulls brass didn't let a little thing like an automatic one-game suspension from a red card keep their Norweigan fullback from making sweet music on Sunday.
Solli covered the DJ duties at Red Bull Arena during halftime, playing up his personal interests in music while his teammates drew up their second-half strategy for the visiting Galaxy. That rankled many who didn't appreciate seeing Solli featured prominently after getting himself ejected less than a week ago, including Chivas striker and former Red Bull Juan Pablo Angel.
"Player that was suspended for the most important game of the season,gets to DJ while team mates are breaking their buts off #shocking," Angel said via Twitter.