NEW YORK – What can we tell from a debut? What do those first touches, that first shot, that first tackle, free kick, yellow card, crowd reception, reveal about a player’s potential impact?
Ask some people and they’ll say, “Everything.” Some people say, “Nothing.”
Truth is, it’s somewhere in the middle.
Of debuts in MLS, there were several this week that herald interesting possibilities, one that didn’t happen, and one coming up on Thursday that should have the champagne flowing from Harrison, N.J., to Paris, France. (Though I imagine the Spurs fans in North London are looking to lift a few pints of Magners instead.)
A pair of debuts came in D.C. United’s midweek loss to the Seattle Sounders. Branko Boskovic, United’s new DP, and Pablo Hernandez, an Argentine striker, both subbed on in the second half of a scoreless draw.
Boskovic held his own but seemed to lie further back than Curt Onalfo probably wants him. Onalfo told MLSsoccer.com’s ExtraTime Radio a few weeks ago that he expects the Montenegrin playmaker to be an attacking creator. If that’s going to happen, he must play further up.
Hernandez, on the other hand, looked like a handful. He is big, brash, and enthusiastic, and he has the ability to hold the ball, both with his back to goal and when he turns and attacks the defense.
“I thought when he came in the game we moved the ball well,” Onalfo said after the Seattle game. “If you look at the first half, we didn't do well in possessing the ball. Second half, we did a good job of that and he was a big part of it.”
But can he score? DC have scored a league-low 12 goals in 17 games. Hernandez got his first start on Sunday night against the LA Galaxy and he made several thrilling runs into the attacking third, but he didn’t find the back of the net. A concern? Not yet, obviously. But he will have to carry the scoring load, and will have to pick it up soon if United are to salvage their season.
On Saturday, FC Dallas trotted out their latest weapon, Milton Rodriguez. The 34-year-old Colombian striker has made 17 stops in his career, and everywhere he’s gone he’s scored goals. If his play in Dallas’s 2-0 win over Real Salt Lake on Saturday is any indication, he’s going to continue that success. He looked dangerous on the ball, powerful on headers and unabashed about shooting from anywhere. M-Rod’s shot from distance led to the rebound that Brek Shea put away for the opener and eventual winner.
Blaise Nkufo, Seattle’s new DP, was expected to get some time in the midweek league match with DC, but instead sat the bench. Probably a good move from coach Sigi Schmid, giving his new player—who hadn’t trained with the Sounders even once—a sniff of MLS without forcing him to take a bite. He first donned his Sounders jersey against Celtic on Sunday and he looked good. Yes, it was just a friendly, but Nkufo was spry and fit and showed glimpses of why the club shelled out the big bucks for him. His league debut this coming week will go a long way in telling us all how he will adjust to the higher-pressure defense of MLS.
Finally, there is a debut on the horizon that has to be talked about. Mainly because it’s going to be talked about endlessly as soon as it happens.
When Thierry Henry steps over the line at RBA, remembrances of David Beckham’s inaugural match with the Galaxy will shudder in my mind.
Quick flashback: Becks comes to America, toting an LA-sized bag of hype, a whopping contract, and a bum ankle. He takes the field against Chelsea, and Steve Sidwell promptly throttles him with a vicious tackle from behind, setting back his recovery.
Henry, thankfully, has no such physical impediments. He does have a bushel full of Big Apple expectations, though. But he’s seen that before.
Every time he took the field for Arsenal, he was loaded with expectations. When he moved to Barcelona, he was loaded with expectations. Any time he slipped on the blue French jersey, the expectations were as high as the Eiffel Tower. Yet, he handled it every time. When he takes the field against Tottenham Hotspur on Thursday night in the opening match of the Barclays New York Challenge, there’s no reason to think he’ll do anything otherwise.
Will Henry’s debut produce some ESPN-worthy highlights? Remains to be seen. Will observers parse every move of his debut? Definitely.
But ultimately, a debut is just one game. And a DP is just one player. Don’t read too much into it. But don’t disregard it, either. After all, everyone has to start somewhere, but it’s where you go from there that matters.