By Richard Farley

MLS: Will Rafa Marquez antics show value of league’s Disciplinary Committee?

Rafa Marquez was supposed to begin 2012 anew, but Saturday saw the New York Red Bulls’ midfielder return to his former self, leaving a trail of causalities in the wake of Saturday’s 2-2 draw with San Jose. Earthquakes’ winger Shea Salinas was left with a broken collarbone, San Jose is now down a starter, and after Major League Soccer’s disciplinary committee had its say this week, New York is without one of its two big ticket items.

Because while Thierry Henry has been MLS’ player of the season, New York’s other designated player is banned. His American football-style tackle saw the former Barcelona-man drive Salinas into the ground, his foot suspiciously coming down on his opponents head as the two rolled around the penalty area. It’s not exactly what New York expected from the third-best compensated player in MLS (behind only Henry and David Beckham).

“I really don’t understand it,” Red Bulls’ announcer Shep Messing decried incredulously as the broadcast replayed Marquez’s takedown, which was either missed or misjudged by referee Ricardo Salazar. “[E]very single corner kick, in my view, [Marquez] could be called for a penalty. No doubt about it. He’s got his arms wrapped [Salinas] every single corner kick.”

Without film, Messing’s description doesn’t do the tactic justice. At the beginning of the movement, Marquez has two hands around his mark’s waste. He runs with him, trying to maintain his embrace, and at the moment Salinas tries to change course, he’s taken down. Two men’s weight fall on one man’s right shoulder, and as Marquez rolls over and off Salinas, he kicks out. It’s unclear whether the fall or the kick broke Salinas’ clavicle, who is now out indefinitely.

Was it a play born of frustration? On San Jose’s first goal, Marquez was culpable, not having the footspeed to say with Earthquakes’ midfielder Rafael Baca. As San Jose’s attack built on the right, Baca made a run from deep, a run initially tracked by Marquez. But as he followed his opponent toward the far post, Marquez pulled up, quitting on the play after falling five yards behind his opponent. Unable to keep up, Marquez left Baca with little more than a tap-in to open San Jose’s account.

The takedown may have been how Marquez decided to deal with speed. Salinas is one of the fastest players in the league, and although that rarely factors on set pieces, Marquez seemed to know he’d be a step behind. Before the corner kick was put back into play, Marquez leveled the playing field, just as he’d done on two previous corners. If Salinas was too fast for him, he was going to slow him down. The right boot that kicked out after the players went to ground? Perhaps a metaphor for Marquez’s frustration. He just couldn’t keep up.

Disciplinary committee could rear its “ugly” head

The incident is exactly the type of play that, throughout the season, has attracted the attention of MLS’ disciplinary committee, a group that appears intent on tweaking the league’s perception of being unduly physical. With the mission of “[preserving] the integrity and reputation of the game and Major League Soccer, and to assist in ensuring player safety,” the group used retrospective punishment to suspend and fine four players in the two weeks preceding Salinas’s injury.

The process: The league has one of the committee’s five members watch each match. Any suspicious incidents are brought before the full body for review. If all five members agree that more punishment is needed, the league takes action. Whether the on-field official saw the incident and didn’t act is irrelevant. If the incident “is of an egregious or reckless nature” and the panel is unanimous, the committee steps in.

In this atmosphere, there was little chance Marquez would dress for New York’s next match (at D.C. United on Sunday), a decision which could serve as a needed point of accord for an unduly criticized process. To this point, all decisions by the committee – no matter how egregious the foul – have been received with skepticism from at least part of MLS’ fanbase. As with most places in the world, the United States has a healthy if small (and hopefully, diminishing) culture of supporters who not only enjoy the physical side of the game but feel it’s endemic to the sport. After Marquez’s takedown of Salinas, few have represented that view, but even when D.C.’s Brandon McDonald jumped through the back of Blas Perez’s knees two weeks ago, there was vocal dismay. It wouldn’t be surprising if a small slice of fans suggested the sport needs more play like Marquez’s.

Placing aside those who enjoy rough play, most of criticism of the panel cites perceived inconsistency. If the committee has such thorough procedures for identifying offenses (the logic goes), why was [cherry picked tackle] punished when [tackle selected through similar bias] not? For a league where an inordinate number of its total consumers are hardcore, club-centric diehards, it’s a recipe for a credibility problem. If a D.C. United fan doesn’t like McDonald’s suspension, the committee is fatally flawed. While in many places that voice would be confined to an irrelevantly small minority, it may be a more prominent opinion within MLS, given its demographics.

Skeptical cries have become so loud that they’re starting to obscure real good the committee threatens to do. While there are always growing pains in early days, the committee has sent a clear message: It wants a cleaner game. The big picture goal is to change the culture, but even if the aggression remains while gross offenders spend less time on the pitch, the league is better off. The calls for consistency advocate a good end, but delivered in response to even correct decisions, they imply MLS should let a few off if the league can’t punish them all.

Marquez already reverting to his former self

Within five weeks of play, Marquez’s season has already come full circle. The 33-year-old served a suspension at the start of the season after seeing red in last year’s playoffs. It was a fitting end to a season that saw this play drop off from 2010 (his first half-season in New York) despite criticizing his teammates as not being up to his level.

The three-match ban led to Marquez being dropped from the Mexican national team, Chepo de la Torre expressing concerns about his attitude. Then came a winter of trying to move from MLS (being prominently linked with Brazil’s Flamengo) and, upon not finding a new home, perceived awareness that he needs to reconcile with team and fans.

“No, that’s in the past,” Marquez told Big Apple Soccer, talking about the trouble that ended his 2011 campaign.

“I’m more committed on the field and also certain matters off the field as well. It’s a different approach … I know what I need to do.”

Implicitly, it was an acknowledgement that the attitude was off. But actions speaking louder than words, it’s difficult to see striking out at Salinas as anything but a huge red flag – almost a cry for help. Though Salinas has expressed forgiveness and New York says they are prepared to work with the player, it’s unclear the Marquez project can be reclaimed. Where New York would have little trouble attracting another designated player, it may be best of Marquez alleviated them of the task and agreed to move on.

At this point in his career (given Marquez’s issues and wages), there’s little chance that happens, making the Disciplinary Committee’s presence even more valuable. Few will decry another suspension for Rafa Marquez, but if reminded there would be no punishment without retrospective action, fans may start to temper their criticisms.

Richard Farley is a U.S.-based freelancer whose work is regularly featured at NBC Sports’ Pro Soccer Talk. He can be reached on Twitter at @RichardFarley or via email: