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Apr 1, 2014

Captain Rafa Marquez takes center stage as El Tri figurehead

PHOENIX -- Amateur.

That was center back Rafa Marquez’s assessment of MLS last July to Catalan radio station RAC1.

In a rare insight into the Mexico legend’s thoughts on his torrid two-year stint with New York Red Bulls, Marquez went on to talk in the same interview about MLS being a non-gratifying experience in general, about the U.S.-Mexico rivalry perhaps clouding the wider public’s perception of him north of the border and implied that the league has a long way to go to reach the heights of the world’s elite.

The truth is that Marquez didn’t play well enough to win over Red Bulls’ fans, never mind garner the begrudging respect of the U.S. soccer-loving public at large.

At the time he made the comments last summer, Marquez hadn’t played a competitive game for El Tri since it humbled the United States in the 2011 Gold Cup final. His place at Brazil looked extremely distant and he could not have dreamed of the upsurge his career has undergone since.

Marquez is now enjoying the curtain call on a career that is the most successful in terms of major trophies in Europe (four La Liga titles, two Champions League) of any CONCACAF player ever. He’s even set to become the first footballer in history to captain his country at four different World Cups.

After lifting the Liga MX trophy with Leon in December and being bestowed by El Tri coach Miguel Herrera with not just the captain’s armband, but also the responsibility of being the undisputed figurehead of his team, it would only seem right that Marquez should get to do battle one final time against his bitter foes.

And the irony is that on Wednesday in Phoenix, it will be against an all-MLS U.S. squad, with the notable exception of Julian Green.

The former Barcelona player’s competitiveness, which has the tendency to spill over into petulance, will mean he is desperate to close off the chapter of his career battling the United States with a victory.

The red card he received in the 88th minute of the 2002 World Cup round of 16 against the United States -- described on the player’s own website as “accidental” -- marked him forever in the eyes of U.S. fans and Marquez’s presence certainly adds that little bit of spice to Wednesday’s proceedings that seems to have been a little dull in terms of off-the-field vitriol over recent matches.

But it won’t all be about Marquez or the Liga MX/MLS battle on Wednesday.

El Tri has not scored against the United States in over 300 minutes of soccer and not won a game since Jurgen Klinsmann took charge in 2011. That hurts Mexico fans and its manager Miguel Herrera.

“Bad runs are there to be broken, which is what we have come for,” he told reporters Monday outside Mexico’s hotel in Phoenix. “We have to win this game because these are clasicos.”

The ingredients all seem to be there for an exciting game on Wednesday, as one of the key figures in Mexico-U.S. clashes since the 1999 Confederations Cup bows out, with international retirement looming for Marquez after Brazil 2014 and El Tri only potentially meeting the United States in the semifinals at the earliest this summer.