NEW YORK -- Rafa Marquez's controversial 2011 season almost isolated him from his New York Red Bulls teammates.
So in 2012 the Mexican international is determined to prove his value starting with his first appearance of the season on Sunday.
If any have wondered where Marquez's refreshed attitude came from, his offseason trip to train with the Barcelona B team might provide answers. Returning to the place where he won two La Liga and two Champions League trophies, Marquez reconnected with Pep Guardiola and some of the former teammates with whom he shared the height of his career.
"It always special to go back home and see your friends and people that you've played with. It was a great experience," Marquez told Goal.com while visiting the Empire State Building on Friday. "I have fond memories of my time there and it was good to go back at least for a brief time."
Prior to his decision to spend time with the Catalan club over the winter, it appeared as though Marquez had one foot out of the door with the Red Bulls.
Marquez's final moments last season summarized his tumultuous second year when the defender lashed out after a close first-leg playoff loss to the Los Angeles Galaxy, throwing a ball at the back of Landon Donovan. Both New York's management and the player were unsure of his MLS future. Marquez was linked with both Brazilian side Flamengo and his childhood club, Atlas in Mexico.
But Marquez returned from Spain a different person, and he's now ready to roll in New York.
Teammates say the Designated Player has pranked several teammates and has been encouraging players while serving his suspension during the team's 0-2 start. Sources within the club also said that during the team's preseason trip to Mexico, Marquez made a concerted effort to improve locker room relationships, something that was clearly problematic after he verbally called out his teammates on defense last season.
"He's been in good spirits," Dane Richards told Goal.com. "You can see he's ready to get things going."
Marquez says that Guardiola, Barcelona's coach, and his former Barca teammates closely follow his progress with the Red Bulls. Perhaps having a chance to share his insights on playing in MLS with arguably the greatest coach in the world helped boost his morale.
"Of course, they follow what's been going on over here. They have a very good idea of what's happening," Marquez said.
Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe has made no secret that he expects much more from Marquez this season. One thing that should help the 33-year-old is his return to the midfield. Marquez and the departed Tim Ream didn't form an ideal pairing last season. Marquez's superb passing should help a team that has struggled to create and his positioning as holding midfielder will likely pay dividends on defense as well.
Enjoying life in the Big Apple, Marquez acknowledges that his Red Bulls' future could be determined on how he plays this season.
"Considering everything, I realize what I need to do," said Marquez. "I need to deliver [this season]. I'm excited by it [the challenge]."
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