First off, welcome to this space, hopefully to become your one-stop-shop for USMNT analysis along with the rest of the world of U.S. soccer. I’m extremely passionate about the beautiful game as it continues to develop in the U.S., and hopefully we’ll have some interplay on the topic in the coming weeks and months.
With that said… I’ll kick this off with a little shock news.
Mr. Henry… Mr. Dribble-step-over-Cruyff-turn-to-rainbow-to-upper-90-blast… that guy… he’s coming to MLS.
If reports are accurate – and with how many have cropped up I would assume they are – Henry will be making his way Stateside to ply his trade with the resurgent Red Bulls in their new palace.
Forget for a moment that he’s a 32-year old who never really fit in with Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side. Forget that he’s had injury issues and has been somewhat of a lightning rod in Catalonia over the last few seasons.
Do not forget – America needs Henry more than Henry needs America. I’ll stop short of calling him an ambassador for the game, but N.Y. hasn’t had this much reason for excitement since Pele in the 70’s. I don’t think I’m being too optimistic in saying Henry’s tenure will be better received than Pele’s. Plus, the league needs stars in big markets. The idea of having Beckham on the Pacific and Henry on the Atlantic – hopefully both of whom stay consistently healthy – is an exciting prospect. It’s another reason to buy tickets.
Amongst the largely soccer-apathetic American masses, Thierry will not arrive in New York with the pagentry of a David Beckham, but that’s no surprise. I’d even call it a good thing, escaping the crushing weight of over-expectation. Amongst the soccer-soaked world fan base, Thierry is slinking away from European football with a whimper after being an afterthought at the Camp Nou this season. Saying you didn’t fit in with one of the great club teams in recent memory isn’t too much of a stain on your reputation.
But let’s think for a minute on the state of MLS. The league is desperately seeking these exemptive players, and Sunil Gulati has, on several occasions, indicated that the league’s goal is to support one such player on each team. Maybe even more if the league continues to grow. Players like Freddy Ljungberg are nice. Players like Thierry Henry are nicer.
Henry’s skill set has undoubtedly diminished over the course of his 32 years, every bit of which he carries in his heavier legs. He’s no longer the spry forward dashing down the flanks with his trademark speed. Much like Ronaldinho, he’s a showman now with light feet, a withering strike and outstanding field vision. His tools are worn, but they’re still in better shape than most.
That is, of course, enough for MLS. It’s more than enough. The league and the country suffer from lack of individual skill on possession, its last major hindrance on the world stage. Americans are renowned for their stamina but not for on-ball skills. Little Michael Bradleys are everywhere in U.S. soccer academies, running for days and making bee-line passes. Finding players with a real creative streak here is decidedly harder. That’s why Henry is different. That’s why a player like Henry can have a nice niche career in the league.
Of course, it’s all contingent on the brittle player staying healthy. In an up-tempo league like MLS, Henry can fill a role. How well he fills it is up for debate, but the idea that he’s being given a try is encouraging.
If Henry can avoid the Beckham comparisons, the better off he’ll be. Beckham and his ridiculous contract were more important from a PR perspective than anything he’d bring on the field, which in itself has not been entirely insignificant. What’s encouraging is that Henry seems to be a bigger duel threat. It’s more of a soccer move than anything else, but he’s a known entity throughout the world, including here. Anything the league does on this level has a modicum of outward reach to it, but Henry can make a difference on the field. Of that there can be no question.
In summation, Henry coming to New York, where he can supply a player like Juan Pablo Angel and still be a dominating figure, is a win-win for the league. The more ex-European superstars the league can cram into its rosters, the younger that threshold gets. MLS is not yet 20 years old, and it was born into turbulent waters. To stoke the fire, these moves are not only beneficial but entirely necessary. It’s akin to jamming used paper into the barrel when bullets aren’t available.
Unfortunately, the league needs depth as much as it needs exposure, and Henry himself cannot bring that. What he can bring, however, is more interest. That begets fan interest, which begets player interest. Every raised eyebrow helps. If baby steps are the name of the game, this is a very positive one in any light.