The $4.6 million man is finally starting to earn his keep.

Red Bulls defender Rafa Marquez came to MLS in 2010 from famed club Barcelona just weeks after Thierry Henry signed with New York. He was supposed to bring the poise and vision that made him a starter with one of the best teams in the world. Instead he’s been labeled as one of the biggest busts in league history.


Over the past two seasons, Marquez has played in less than half the Red Bulls’ minutes. The occasional call-up to the Mexican national team did pull him away for some time but it has mainly been injuries and suspensions that have derailed his supposed promise. But now, for perhaps the first time all season, Marquez is fully healthy and he’s started the last two games, both shutouts by New York.


“I guess everybody is more relaxed when Rafa is on the ball and also they’re kind of more happy to give him the ball and deal with it and Rafa won’t shy away from it; he wants the ball,” Henry said. “Every now and then, you’re going to make a mistake because he wants to play on the ground and play futbol.”


Marquez has only lived up to his billing in spurts since coming to New York. Perhaps now is the right time for this Red Bulls team. With the Red Bulls set to take the field this Saturday at RFK Stadium, Marquez can bring a certain level of composure to the backline. He is, after all, a converted midfielder who is comfortable handling the ball and doesn’t boot the ball deep down field like many MLS midfielders do in a fit of panic. Marquez sees things develop when he’s on the ball and he has the ability to send a precise pass like few others in the league.


That is, when he’s on the field.


“He’s now physically fit and he looks very good and very important for us in the passing game for example,” assistant coach Jan Halvor Halvorsen. “He’s very calm with the ball, he doesn’t give [away] the ball. That’s very important.”

But there’s more to the angst of many Red Bulls fans than a bloated salary that doesn’t fit his production on the field. It’s his on-field demeanor that seems to draw the most vitriol from fans. Last season, Marquez called out his teammates to the media for not being at his “level,” a bit of locker room bravado that resulted in a team suspension of one game.

But in the eyes of his teammates, maybe he’s just a bit misunderstood.

“Rafa is the type of guy -- I played with him in Barcelona -- Rafa doesn’t talk too much, he leads by example on the field. I’m sure you’ve experienced that, he doesn’t like to talk too much,” Henry said. “But on the field he’s a different kind of character like I am. But he’s not a talker.”

In the last two games, the Red Bulls had a scoreless home tie with Sporting KC, the top team in the Eastern Conference, and then went on the road in Philadelphia for a 3-0 win. In both games, Marquez started in the heart of the defense and impressed with his distribution and consistently winning his defensive battles.

“I’ve been saying the same thing since the beginning of the season, you’ll see another Red Bull team [in the playoffs],” Henry said. “Are we going to win it? I don’t know. But we look a bit more composed.”

Follow Red Bulls beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.