UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. – The timing of this week’s controversy couldn’t be worse for the Red Bulls, who are now trying to stay focused ahead of Saturday night’s crucial home match against the Portland Timbers (7:30 pm ET, watch LIVE online).
Defender Rafa Márquez’s midweek comments about the quality of his teammates, in which the Designated Player called out the rest of the defense for not being up to his caliber, has led to the Mexican national team’s captain being suspended by head coach Hans Backe for the Timbers tilt. The distraction and uproar come after New York’s first-half meltdown in a 3-1 loss to Real Salt Lake in which Márquez was partially to blame for the third goal by the visitors.
“As you can imagine, very disappointed. We wanted to win [against] Salt Lake,” captain Thierry Henry said of that game. “I don’t know how come we’re still in the race to qualify for the playoffs. I don’t know how, but we’re still in. We have to focus on Portland. At the beginning of these three games, if someone said we had the opportunity, the chance to get six points out of nine with the run we had before those three games coming in, people would have said let’s take those six points.”
The Red Bulls are just one point behind Portland for the 10th and final playoff spot. After months of playing games billed as “must-wins,” this one truly lives up to that moniker.
But the furor over Márquez’s remarks only adds to the pressure the Red Bulls are feeling. Speaking openly, Backe said he wasn’t sure if all the distractions would take away his team’s focus.
“I hope not,” Backe said. “Anytime you don’t get a result, it smells a little bit. Things are not working that way, but anyhow I think everyone is so, so keen to bounce back and give it a try for the playoffs. I think that’s the main thing.”
Defender Tim Ream wouldn’t comment on the Márquez issue but said that the Timbers match is “probably the most important game of the season with the playoffs coming up, so we’re really focused on [Saturday].”
After a team meeting to help clear the air following Márquez’s suspension, New York seemed more upset about their first-half performance in their last game than the fallout from the comments. In the game, the back line conceded three goals in 21 minutes, a series of breakdowns that Backe called “individual mistakes.”
Heavy rains in North Jersey cut into the Red Bulls practice time on Friday morning at Montclair State University, but the team did some light training and focused more on staying sharp then anything tactical.
“The session was good,” Backe said. “A number of players looked very sharp if you look at the finishing, the attacking game. Very, very sharp.”
“It was good, to be honest with you," the defender said. Guys were [champing] at the bit. The intensity was high, the tempo was good, the attitude was good.”
Márquez participated in just part of training before heading into the team’s facility to work separately with one of the Red Bulls trainers.
Kristian R. Dyer covers the Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com.