Monday Postgame: NY better off with or without Rafa?

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We’re mixing up the Postgame this week: Instead of recapping the latest action, we’re taking one prominent talking point for the stretch run of the season and knocking it around for a few paragraphs.

There were plenty of storylines to choose from this week, from Freddy Adu’s breakout game, to the deadly looking LA Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes, to Marvell Wynne’s new retro ’do (think early Miles Davis — or FBI agent Alonzo Mosely from Midnight Run).

But we’re tackling the long-awaited return — and sudden departure — of New York Designated Player Rafa Márquez, and asking a simple question: Are the Red Bulls better off with the former Mexico captain and Barcelona man, or without him?

By the Numbers

Due to a combination of suspensions and injuries, Márquez has only suited up for 11 of New York’s 30 games this season. With a win, a loss, and a tie in Márquez's last three appearances (against Columbus, Sporting KC and New England), the Red Bulls ran their 2012 record with him in the lineup to 6-1-4.

Without him, RBNY are 8-7-4.

By the Gut: Anecdotal Evidence

Those stats may come as a surprise to Red Bulls fans who haven’t been tracking them closely. There’s a simple reason for that, and it’s encapsulated in Márquez's three games since returning from his midsummer injury absence.

Against Columbus, Márquez had a solid game, helping New York to a 3-1 win and setting up Thierry Henry’s opening goal with a pinpoint 50-yard pass that practically defined accuracy. In the Sporting Kansas City match, he produced a lackadaisical, turnover-prone performance as the team fell 2-0 in a battle for first place, suffering their first home loss of the season. In the wild 1-1 tie at New England, Márquez came off after 35 minutes due to hamstring tightness.

NY's Lindpere: "We didn't lose but it feels like losing"

He went from dazzling to disinterested to disabled in the three-game span — a trend that, to many Red Bulls fans, is more reflective of Márquez’s performance this year than the 6-1-4 record.

GOAL: Márquez over the top to Henry

According to Titi:

Márquez’s fellow Designated Player Thierry Henry has never wavered in his support for his former Barcelona teammate, regularly insisting the team is better off with Márquez in the lineup.

Henry: Key for us to win MLS Cup is Rafa Márquez

Speaking to The New York Times after the Columbus game, Henry got specific about what Márquez adds to New York’s game: “When Rafa plays, I have another option. I can move behind the defense, and you saw it tonight. How many times you saw me dropping tonight? None. How many times you saw me going behind the defense? Every single time. It’s another dimension for me when Rafa plays.”

Tactics and Teamwork

But while Márquez was away, 25-year-old Dax McCarty made New York’s holding midfield spot his own. He’s been one of the most consistent and best performers on the team this season. With Márquez and Teemu Tainio plugged back into central midfield, McCarty’s been pushed wide. It’s not his optimal position and the move has deprived the team of one of its top performers in the middle.

On top of that, Márquez doesn’t always seem to be on the same page as his teammates, with the exception of Henry. This disconnect has led to unforced errors, turnovers and missed defensive assignments.

The player’s infamous comments last year regarding Tim Ream fit into the conversation here as well — not to mention his, let’s say impulsive, moments, such as throwing a ball at Landon Donovan during last year’s playoffs, or body-slamming Shea Salinas earlier this season. He doesn’t come across as a team-bonding type of guy.

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The Red Bulls may not be as skilled a unit without him, but they seem more focused, and fight for each other more, when he’s on the sidelines.

Come playoff time, focus and fight will be more valuable than the occasional perfectly flighted long ball.