A View from Afar / Union

The mysterious, lost season of Richie Marquez

Photo: Earl Gardner

Richie Marquez’s season has been one long and proverbial shake of the head.

The Philadelphia Union center back entered the 2017 season as the Union’s best and most reliable defender over the prior two seasons, their back line anchor, and at just 24 (now 25) years old, still young enough to have U.S. national team potential. At 6-2, 185, Marquez could battle the league’s strongest target forwards, while he was generally one of the fastest players on the field. You can’t name a better, more precise open field slide tackler in the league, as shown in his numerous highlight reel tackles in his own end, usually covering for some ill-advised Fabinho run upfield. His game may not include Jack Elliott’s passing vision, but it does come complete with an engine few center backs can match.

Marquez looks like the perfect compliment to Elliott.

Marquez hasn’t started an MLS game since the Union’s scoreless draw with Los Angeles on April 29, however.

Why?

Good question.

A series of unfortunate mediocrities

After that April 29 game, Marquez contracted a stomach bug, reportedly lost about 10 pounds in a week, and has been seeing pine time ever since.

Instead, veteran Oguchi Onyewu or second year man Josh Yaro have started in his place.

Onyewu played well in those early outings and has been fairly steady, if unspectacular, but his lack of mobility has required his adjacent fullback to hold back in attack, which has hurt the Union’s offense.

Yaro, meanwhile, has often been disastrous since returning from injury. Consider his last three games:

  1. His red card against Atlanta put Philadelphia down a man for nearly a the whole second half.
  2. His stoppage time penalty shipped San Jose a game-tying goal at the death.
  3. His play during the Union’s crushing 3-0 home loss to Montreal wasn’t much better, including a deflected pass that set up a goal.

Union staff have described Yaro as being in preseason form. He has looked it. In his defense, however, that begs another question: Why isn’t Yaro playing himself back into shape for the Union’s USL affiliate, Bethlehem Steel?

Instead, that’s where Marquez is.

Part of a pattern of Jim Curtin’s inflexibility

Marquez’s lost season parallels that of Keegan Rosenberry.

Rosenberry, last year’s rookie phenom and national team camp invitee hit a league record by playing every minute last year — and then got benched in April. He probably earned it, but few thought it would last most of the season, particularly after replacement Ray Gaddis proved ordinary and a clear drop from Rosenberry’s 2016 performance.

If this was to be a playoff team, the Union needed Rosenberry to play his way back into top form. Aside from some U.S. Open Cup time, Union head coach Jim Curtin waited till Aug. 26 to give Rosenberry the chance.

Marquez wasn’t great either before he got benched — he lost one too many marks on set pieces — but he also wasn’t bad. During the Union’s first eight games, Marquez was simply mediocre for the first time in his professional career.

Then again, so was every other Union player not named C.J. Sapong. The center midfield in front of Marquez was a mess, with Alejandro Bedoya yet to move to the No. 8 and Haris Medunjanin yet to play any defense. Fabinho was still Fabinho at left back. Andre Blake was playing like he’d wished he’d gotten transferred to Europe.

After two seasons of showing his quality, you would think the Union would recognize that Marquez would return to form after recovering from his illness, much like Rosenberry.

Instead, Curtin made a decision and never changed it, even after the losses started mounting again.

That’s what Curtin usually does. Here’s his typical cycle:

  1. Refuse to make significant changes.
  2. Make changes only when you have no other choice, such as an injury or the threat of missing the playoffs or getting fired.
  3. Once you make a change, stick with it for a very long time.

Curtin does it with formations, road game tactics, lineup changes, and even in-game substitutions.

That’s how Chris Pontius became a right winger most of this season and produced a goalless 2017. It’s not that the decision to try him on the right was a bad one. It was actually a smart change of pace by Curtin that started well, with Pontius recording four assists in three games there in May. The choice to keep Pontius there, even after teams scouted his tendencies there, was where Curtin went wrong. Pontius hasn’t scored or assisted on a goal since that stretch in May. Sure enough, now returned to his traditional inverted left winger role, Pontius put in one of his best shifts of the year Saturday against Minnesota.

Marquez’s future

What does the future hold for Marquez?

Maybe another club.

At this point, Marquez looks like a player Curtin never really rated. Remember, after Marquez’s fantastic rookie year spent in USL, he entered 2015 as the Union’s fourth center back and only saw the field due to injury. He played so well that he never surrendered his starting spot till his sickness this year.

As for his counterparts:

  • Jack Elliott has been a revelation and should be a fixture at right center back for years to come. His passing vision, poise on the ball and aerial ability will probably earn him this year’s Rookie of the Year award.
  • Onyewu is 35 years old and can still play this game, but at this point, he’s a rotational third center back whose presence on the field limits the adjacent fullback’s attacking freedom.
  • Yaro infatuates due to his speed, ball skill and vision — all nice traits for a defensive midfielder, let’s note again — but he makes major mistakes and, as basically the league’s smallest center back, gets consistently owned in the air. (He has won only half his aerial duels this year, a similar rate to last year and a very poor ratio for a center back.)

The Union want to see what Yaro can do, but in the process, they’ve marginalized the uniquely talented Marquez.

You don’t see too many MLS center backs with Marquez’s combination of speed, size and fearlessness. If the Union don’t recognize that, some other team will.

19 Comments

  1. Atleast Elliot and Yaro can complete passes.

    Unless Marquez learns how to do something other than punt and pray I’m fine with him as our #3 and then eventually #4 CB.

    • Passing completion rates for Union CBs in 2017:

      Marquez: 77.7%
      Elliott: 76.6
      Yaro: 89.6
      Onyewu: 79

      The stats say he compares favorably.

      A more nuanced view than you’ve offered is this:

      Marquez doesn’t have passing vision as good as Yaro or Elliott, who are both excellent in this area, but Marquez does just fine for the one of the CB pairing that is not your primary ball-playing CB and is also deployed on the left side, as opposed to his favored right foot. Elliott doesn’t pass as well when he’s on the left side either. This is why it’s good to have a left-footed left center back if you can.

  2. One Game with the Steel in particular was extremely troubling.
    .
    Judging by organization behavior, when a Union player is loaned down to the Steel for a game, he must start.
    .
    In the home game hosting Louisville, Derrick Jones, Ken Tribbett and Richie Marquez were all loaned down. That meant Tribbett could not play defensive center mid because that was Jones’s slot next to James Chambers. So, Tribbett and Marquez paired at center back.
    .
    Multiple times that pairing was beaten down the center of the field by Louisville, the way it was last season with the Union. Were Adam Cann to have nothing better to do than analyze USL tape of games now history, he could tell us why. I can only judge by the result, which was poor. I cannot apportion responsibility.
    .
    For what it is worth, which ai’n’t much, my gut ached for Hugh Roberts to be next to Marquez and Tribbett to be at DCM instead of Jones.
    .
    I have no idea how the Union talent evaluators see Roberts’ future. The only relevant behavioral evidence is that he has lasted longer at center back with the Steel than his predecessor did, Mickey Daly.
    .
    On a separate point, those who determine the Steel’s game day roster have to balance the immediate short-term needs of the first team against the longer term developmental goals of playing the younger guys.
    .
    I have put to coach Burke the idea that there are three phases to a Steel season in terms of over all developmental purposes. First, the first six weeks to two months is devoted to honing the Union’s bench, getting them closer to game shape. Second, May to August, the needs of the younger players, both Steel and the best of the Academy, come to the fore as decisions about homegrown contracts are reaching the NCAA matriculation deadline. Finally, the Academy cycles over to the next group for evaluation.
    .
    Remember the longevity-of-employment principle of AT & T and the United States Military, “up or out.” You must earn promotion or leave the organization. Probably that is a privately held principle within the Union’s process. It certainly is within New York Red Bulls developmental system, judging by their behavior.

  3. the way the truth the light says:

    threat of getting fired? come on…. reaching reaching reaching.
    .
    the one constant in these miserable and i mean miserable seasons of Union soccer has been the manager and he’s safe as a nippled baby on a mother’s breast…. safe as Chris Pontius being sent to start game after game for his work rate and hand wave to Haris every game when his first touch fails him in the opening minutes.
    .
    also..If this is a team looking to sell assets, Jack Elliot will not be here long.

  4. Correct me if I am wrong, if you are referring to the “unique talents” of Richie Marquez being his first rate ability to slide tackle I will argue this is actually not a unique talent….at all. Being tall and well bearded are not talents either.
    .
    So, I’m at a loss. There is a reason Richie Marquez played college ball, where again?
    .
    – drew me out of retirement with that comment Dan, couldn’t resist.
    .
    back to my other planet with the Tralmalfadorians. bye now.

    • OneManWolfpack says:

      Had to google Tralmalfadorians – good stuff as always Elephant. Miss you around here

    • You’ve become stuck in a chrono-synclastic infundibulum. That explains it.

    • Strengths: Tall, fast, excellent open field tackler, good marker, repeatedly cleans up defensive messes left by others, safe with the ball. Weaknesses: Loses concentration on set pieces, ordinary passing vision.

      Clint Dempsey played soccer at Furman. Where you played your college ball means jack.

    • Some in the football world consider open-field slide-tackling a sign of weakness- ie, if you had better positioning and organization skills, you wouldn’t need to slide tackle. Perhaps as you mentioned, some of those might be the result of nearby teammates’ positional weakness, but I often wondered if there was something that Curtin was seeing that frustrated him. I don’t ever remember hearing Curtin laud Richie’s slide tackles after a game.

      • I think you’re probably right about Curtin.

        You’re also right in general regarding positioning vs. open field slide tackles, but I generally view it as what life is like for a CB next to Fabinho.

  5. Chris Gibbons says:

    I think Richie is good and deserves more work. He was out of position and lost his man on set pieces too often, recovering from the former with slide tackles and never being able to recover from the latter. If he can slide in next to next year’s older and wiser Jack Elliott, they might be on to something. However, I always felt that Richie’s best moments were when he was next to Maurice Edu. Generally speaking, most of us would have our best soccer moments in that scenario.

  6. The reason Richie’s season has gone this way is simple if you’ve been playing attention to lost seasons past: He hasn’t shown enough in training.

  7. The reason Richie has lost this season is that he has a bad coach who didn’t develop him and then didn’t play him. Plain and simple. We can only hope that Richie and Keegan and Trusty and DJ get traded or sold or released so they can join a real team with a real accomplished coach. (We could instead hope for Curtin to be replaced, but that seems like too simple a solution for this dysfunctional front office.) Is it really any surprise that McGann and Letts left Philly for Atlanta? The chance to play for a super-accomplished coach vs. the chance to play for a coach who doesn’t play the kids, doesn’t know tactics beyond one formation, and is decidedly unaccomplished…

  8. Agreed!

  9. Glad somebody finally spoke up about Richie Marquez. He was really a very fine CB for 1.5+ seasons. I was wondering why the hell he was suddenly persona non grata. One would think that Jim Curtin, if nothing else, should be a good judge of talent at the CB position?? Does he recognize something that we don’t?

  10. When you have a VERY young CB like Jack Elliott, who started in place of Marquez mostly, it is often important that the other CB be seasoned. It is no coincidence that the games where either Yaro-Elliott (8 goals, 4 games, 2.00 GAA) or Marquez-Elliott (5 goals, 3 games, 1.67 GAA) have started together have a markedly higher GAA vs the games where Gooch-Elliott have started together (18 goals, 17 games, 1.06 GAA). Thus, unless Gooch is getting a rest, hurt, or we’re just looking to play young guys in lieu of getting results, Gooch needs to be in there to stabilize the back 4.

    I think most objectivity on this site has gone out the window re: the coaching staff of the Union. Staff gets blamed for Marquez and Keegan regressing, but not a ripple about the staff’s involvement in Elliott’s ascension, which clearly (as noted above) comes at the expense of Richie’s place. I mean, I’m sure our head coach, who was an all-star CB in this league and has national team caps, has had zero to do with a 4th round pick from West Virginia’s development into one the league’s better center backs in a grand total of 6 months (sarcasm).

    • Elliott was with the Union for less than three months when he went into the lineup. While there are surely things the staff helped improve, a player doesn’t “develop” in three months. Elliott is primarily a triumph of scouting. Elliott is a good player who went overlooked in the draft. This team drafts well. Give them credit for it.

      Good points, re: GAA stats. I wrote about the first 8 games above — and that Gooch has played well — so I’m not going to restate all that I wrote above.

      That said, Adam Cann, I and other PSP writers have written plenty over the YEARS praising things that Curtin and his staff have done. Yes, the staff is drawing criticism now, and there is a reason for that: The results, and the personnel/tactical choices that have led to them. Whatever their limitations due to ownership’s spending practices — which I have written about VERY clearly: http://www.phillysoccerpage.net/2017/05/02/an-open-letter-to-jay-sugarman — certain things also come down on the coach.

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