It was a seemingly innocuous injury to Michael Lahoud on May 2, 2015. Merely seconds after kick-off in the Union’s home match with Toronto FC, the veteran defensive midfielder pulled up with a quad injury, forcing Jim Curtin to burn an early sub.
As Maurice Edu headed up to the midfield to take Lahoud’s spot, on came a bearded, burly 22-year-old in a substitution that created more questions than applause as fans were still piling into their respective seats at Talen Energy Stadium.
But it was a defining moment for Richie Marquez. And it may become a defining moment for the franchise.
There, Marquez made his MLS debut, and it happened to be against the top forward tandem in MLS – the speed of eventual league MVP Sebastian Giovinco, and the power of arguably the most physically imposing forward in the league Jozy Altidore.
“I was definitely a bit nervous,” Marquez recalls. “But I did my best not to focus on who I was playing against, but rather on doing whatever I could to help my teammates win.”
No, the Union didn’t win; they lost 1-0 with the lone goal coming on a trademarked free kick goal from Giovinco. But Marquez’s tone was felt and the rookie went on to start 20 of the next 24 league games at center back – missing two to injury, one to suspension and one to rest as Curtin gave his starters a breather prior to the Open Cup Final.
Now 23, Marquez will be relied upon heavily to anchor the team’s defense. Curtin announced he’ll move Edu to the midfield to start the year, and with the Union moving on from Steven Vitoria and Ethan White, Marquez is now the elder statesman in the middle.
“I don’t take anything as guaranteed, but I’m going to continue to implement what the coaches and teammates have taught me,” Marquez said. “It’s important, to me, to continue to grow in order to do whatever I can to benefit my teammates.”
What’s probably most intriguing about Marquez is his pure athleticism. At 6-2, 185, Marquez is rarely beat in a physical matchup. That’s evident from his German duel success, where he won 57.4 percent – third on the team only behind the aforementioned Edu (57.5) and White (60.6). But his deceptive speed rarely goes unnoticed, either. He had 71 interceptions on the season, second only to Fabinho, despite playing just slightly more than half of the team’s games. He also led the team with 12 blocks.
In addition, Marquez was the team's top passer out of the back, completing 80.1 percent of his passes. He's been noted for having drastically improved his game on his feet since being drafted, and that should come as no coincidence that he's more than in the fold for Curtin's team this year, which appears to be favoring a build-from-the-back approach.
And coincidence or not, Marquez seemed to be on the field when good things happened. He led the team in clean sheets (8) and win percentage (38) – matches in which the Union took all three points.
“He’s shocked a lot of people,” Curtin said of the former DIII player from the University of Redlands. “Not only to just do OK in the league, but to come in, compete and cover the best strikers in the league. We’re very happy with where he’s at.”
As for 2016, if Marquez is starting as many assume he will be, he’ll be joined by a new defensive partner. That could be Anderson Conceicao, Josh Yaro or Ken Tribbett. It’s a battle that Curtin has praised recently as a healthy competition. Marquez echoed those statements and then some.
“The team has an amazing chemistry right now,” he said. “In order to be a successful team, that chemistry is a must and if we continue to grow and hold each other accountable, this team will accomplish great things."
This is the sixth installment of the 2016 Philadelphia Union season preview. All month at PhiladelphiaUnion.com, we'll be breaking down what lies ahead with the season less than one month away. This week, we're looking at the Union's defense with a complete positional breakdown this weekend. What's on your mind for Richie Marquez in the 2016 season?