By Ridge Mahoney
In the next few days there will be all manner of comparisons regarding the signing of French striker Thierry Henry, whose tenure with MLS and New York Red Bull officially began Wednesday.
Henry is the most recognizable player signed by MLS since David Beckham came aboard in 2007, and for all the camera time and Web traffic and chat-show appearances and jersey sales generated by Beckham's arrival, his soccer impact has been only slight more than squat.
Henry turns 33 next month and if not too enamored of New York hot spots and visits to the Garden for NBA games, he will be a key contributor, if not a dominant superstar, for a team and a franchise that may finally be getting it right not only with using the Designated Player option, but in simply running a viable operation.
While members of a large Irish-American community may only trek out to Red Bull Arena to taunt and abuse the man whose handball-created goal knocked Ireland out of World Cup contention, Henry can draw fans on name recognition and impressive accomplishments. Premier League titles with Arsenal, Champions League and La Liga crowns with Barcelona, and a 1998 World Cup win with France are among his credentials.
He speaks Spanish as well as French and English, and has been an outspoken critic of racism in sports.
Think of all the big names unable to take a bite out of the Big Apple. From Lothar Matthaeus and Sasa Curcic and Sergio Galvan Rey and Youri Djorkaeff to Carlos Alberto Parreira and Bora Milutinovic and Carlos Queiroz and Eddie Firmani and Bruce Arena and Bob Bradley (whew!), there’s seldom, if ever, been the right mix of leadership, structure, direction, and chutzpah. If there was too much, at times, of the latter – we’re talking to you, Marc De Grandpre – there wasn’t nearly enough of the other elements.
Not all of those men failed, per se, but their operations didn’t operate, dysfunction overrode function, and after months or years of blindly blundering about, the franchise usually wound up more or less in the same place: mediocre on the field, and royally messed up everywhere else.
In the last eight months, Red Bull seems to have reversed direction. Last December, it hired managing director Erik Soler, and he snapped up Swede Hans Backe to coach the team a month later. Aided by assistant coach Richie Williams and the staff, Red Bull picked one of the league’s top rookies, defender Tim Ream, in the SuperDraft, and has assembled a team that is proving hard to beat.
After winning just five games last year, the Red Bulls are 8-5-2. They are still in pursuit of a third Designated Player, supposedly Mexican international Rafael Marquez, who – like Henry – would arrive from Barcelona. Whether or not that deal comes to fruition, by signing Henry New York has broken through a post-World Cup media malaise that should pay off in many ways.
The poaching, penalty-area presence of Juan Pablo Angel melded with Henry’s savvy and mobility should form a partnership among the most potent in MLS. As New York’s second DP, he will cost the team $335,000 against the per-team salary cap of $2.55 million. (Angel, as first DP, is a $415,000 salary-budget charge, in league parlance.)
In MLS terms, that’s a lot of money for a front line. Yet it will be money very wisely spent if Henry can produce even a good dose of his top game.
“He will play as the highest striker,” Backe said to mlssoccer.com. “And we know he’s very, very mobile. That means he would probably be on both the left- and right-hand sides. That’s one of his favorite positions to start the attacking game, but he will definitely play as a striker.”
Henry will do a press conference and various chat shows on Thursday, the day the domestic registration period opens and he is officially eligible to play. He isn’t expected to see the field when New York plays at Columbus Saturday in a matchup of the top two Eastern Conference teams. His debut is projected for next week, when Red Bull hosts the New York Football Challenge.
Next Thursday the Red Bulls face touring English club Tottenham Hotspur – a fierce rival of Arsenal – and three days later they play another foe of Henry’s Premier League days, Manchester City.