Richie Marquez's road to starting center back for the Philadelphia Union is not simply a story about a young man overcoming very long odds. It's a story about a father and son; a story about a coach and his player; a story about how hard work is the driving force behind them all. It's also a story about hair. But that part comes near the end.
Marquez grew up in Pomona, an idyllic Southern California town, maybe best known as the home of the Los Angeles County Fair. "My parents took me there twice when I was little," recalled Marquez of the fair. "When you're 7 or 8 you think it's the best thing in the world."
But it was soccer that survived as his passion - a passion fueled by his father, who played professionally in Mexico before landing in California. "I always heard stories about how good my Dad was and I remember loving the game because of him. He would play with me in the backyard. He finally decided to put me in a league when I kept plugging him. It was the best experience I could ask for."
There weren't many club options at the time, but Marquez played for a local club and eventually for his high school. It wasn't until his sophomore year that he experienced a position change that would alter the course of his career. "In high school I played forward. One game they needed a back and I played there and they loved the way I played, and it pretty much stuck," said Marquez.
Marquez separated himself as a talent in high school and wanted to continue playing in college. Part of that potential comes from his 6'2" frame, but he gives most of the credit to hard work which was something he learned from his father. "My father said ‘You're going to grow up and see players who are more talented than you and better than you, but that doesn't mean they will be able to make it. The way you work hard for your reputation in life, you have to work just as hard on the field'" said Marquez. "Hard work was just his mentality. I feel that about everything in my life. When I got the opportunity on the soccer field I just thrived on it. Hard work really pushed me to be where I am."
Marquez didn't receive the attention of the big schools, but he made a recruiting trip to Division III University of Redlands near his hometown. "During my recruiting trip at Redlands I talked to Coach Perez and he sold me. He told me he wasn't scared to play a freshman. That meant a lot because most coaches I talked to said they really didn't want to play freshman."
Coach Ralph Perez is a legend at Redlands, where he has been the Men's Soccer Coach for ten seasons, leading the Bulldogs to six conference championships and a 153-47-15 record. Coach Perez had an impressive career before this stint at Redlands. He spent time on the United States National Team Staff, leading the U-20 men to a fourth place finish in the World Cup in 1989. He was also an assistant coach for LA Galaxy and New York-New Jersey Metrostars before taking a variety of college coaching jobs.
Marquez made an immediate impact at Redlands where his work ethic was on full display according to his coach. "When you look at the way that Richie approaches anything he does, he's a 110% guy. His work ethic was second to none," said Perez.
"Clearly the growth and development of this young man from where we got him as a freshman to where he was a senior was all predicated on hard work. He wanted to be all he could be and he worked at it harder than any guy I had in this program in the 10 years I've been here."
After his sophomore year, where Redlands made an appearance in the NCAA Sweet 16, Marquez was named the team captain entering his junior year. Playing at a smaller school may have allowed Marquez to develop more fully as a leader. Coach Perez again credits his growth in this area to hard work. "I already knew that he would be my captain as a junior. I couldn't think of a better guy to be our leader and he embraced it, and he was absolutely brilliant. He was magical in that area. He's the first guy in the weight room. He's winning all the sprints. You show up for practice and he's the first one there. He was just a real bona fide leader."
While Marquez was pursuing his dream on the field, he was surprised by what interests he found academically. "When I went to college I was going to study International Relations," said Marquez. "But a friend recommended that I take a course in Communicative Disorders, and I did. When I took that first course I just fell in love with the whole concept of what they were trying to do, and how hands on it was and all the clinical work, and I thought that was a very beautiful and great thing to do."
Marquez graduated with that degree in Communicative Disorders, which helps people with hearing loss, speech impediments, and other related issues and says that he'd like to pursue a career in that field once his playing days are over. But the immediate task at hand was to pursue playing professionally like his father.
Despite Marquez's success with Perez at Redlands there were still long odds that he would be noticed by anyone at Major League Soccer. His only chance was to be invited to the MLS Combine, but those tickets don't typically find their way to Division III schools. To attend the Combine a person who works in the league must have seen him play and vouch for his abilities.
"That was a chore to get him in [to the Combine]. A real chore," said Perez. "We didn't get any help from Chivas USA who came to see him play, because they said he wasn't MLS material."
Brian Schmetzer, assistant coach for the Seattle Sounders, came to the rescue. Schmetzer had seen Marquez play during that playoff run in his sophomore season. Perez, with the help of Schmetzer, got Marquez that critical invite, and he became one of only two Division III invitees to the MLS Combine this decade.
"Being in MLS for 10 years and coaching our National teams and our Olympic teams, I had no doubt that Richie had the right stuff," said Perez. "All I wanted to try to do was open the door to the Combine. I knew that once he got there that he would be fine - that he would hold his own against anybody. I knew that he had the qualities to play Major League Soccer."
To prepare for the Combine, Marquez used his Division III status as motivation. "I want people to doubt me all the time because I like proving people wrong. People see D3 and they cut you off, but I wanted to prove that it doesn't matter where you come from as long as you can play," said Marquez.
Marquez scored very well in the physical testing where, according to Perez, he placed in the top five in five categories, which put him in a class by himself at the Combine. The Philadelphia Union were impressed enough to draft him in the third Round of the 2014 SuperDraft and 44th overall.
Once again Marquez faced long odds to even make the Union roster. Of the nineteen players taken in the third round in 2014, just six have logged an appearance in the league and only one player besides Marquez is currently on a MLS roster.
Marquez had to be patient for his shot with the Union. He spent his first professional season as a full time starter for the Harrisburg City Islanders and helped them reach the USL Championship.
It wasn't until the tenth game of the 2015 season, with the Union hosting star studded Toronto FC that Marquez played his first MLS minutes. Defensive midfielder Michael Lahoud went down with a leg injury in the fifth minute and Marquez was called in by manager Jim Curtin. Not only was Marquez going to play center back in MLS for the first time, he was going to have to face two intimidating scorers in eventual league MVP Sebastian Giovinco and U.S. National Jozy Altidore. And there was a good chance that United States Player of the Year Michael Bradley would find his way into the box as well.
"When Jim called my name to go on the field it took me a while. I was almost in shock. You sure you called me coach? I remember seeing those guys on TV and going to watch them, but this was my shot. I knew this was my moment and I could prove to everyone that I could play," recalls Marquez.
Marquez more than held his own despite a 1-0 loss to Toronto. The lone goal of the game came off a sensational free kick from Giovinco where the defensive line was not at fault.
Marquez and his college coach prove to be tough critics looking back. "I think I did alright. I don't think I did great. I'm a pretty hard critic on myself. I watched that tape more than any other. I wanted to see the things I needed to improve and work on," reflected Marquez.
Coach Perez would rather constructively criticize the mistakes than the better performances. When asked about the Toronto game, he changed subjects to Marquez's worst performance last year. "We chatted about his performance when he came to L.A. and they stuck five goals on Philly. We talked about that one quite a bit, because I thought he was at fault for a couple of those goals. My criticism for him is always in a corrective manner. I give him a real clear concise evaluation," said Perez.
Marquez never let go of his role at center back for the Union. He made 20 more appearances, including that debacle against the L.A. Galaxy, but he helped solidify a back line that suffered from injuries and inconsistent play. His performances continually improved as he collected experience and eventually became the team's most dependable defender by season's end - large strides for a Division III kid picked in the third round.
His play on the field wasn't the only thing making Marquez stand out in his first year in the league. He also edged out Maurice Edu for the team lead in different hairstyles. Seemingly every game Marquez sported a new hairdo. "One day I like the beard and one day I don't like the beard. One day I like the long hair and one day I like the short hair. I kind of just wing it. There's never really a process. I just go with the flow I guess," said Marquez. "My teammates kid me all the time."
Perez recalls that hair management was always important to Marquez. "He was the team barber. When he was at Redlands everyone got their haircut through Richie." But that doesn't mean coach isn't still critical. "Quite frankly when I saw a couple of his ‘dos, because we talk all the time, I told him he's got to lose that man bun." Another thing to look forward to in the Union's upcoming season is whether or not Marquez takes that advice.
As Marquez looks forward to his sophomore season in a Union kit, he's taking nothing for granted. "No one is guaranteed a job. You've got to come back and work hard. I don't want to stop working. I just wanted to prove myself, not just for Jim [Curtin] but for everyone, myself and my teammates."
That mindset has served Richie Marquez well. From backyard games against his father, to becoming his coach's captain as a junior, to defending the MLS MVP, Marquez has placed relationships and a strong work ethic at the center of that journey. What looks like a story of long odds from the outside looks more like a certainty when getting a glimpse of the people behind the dream.