About two-and-a-half years ago, I had a nice 30-minute phone conversation with Thierry Henry, who had recently arrived as FC Barcelona’s newest acquisition. Our chat turned to his future.
Even then, the French legend was honest about his desire to play in MLS one day, his wish of being closer to his friends in the NBA and his love of American culture. He said straight out that he loved New York and could see himself there in the not-to-distant future. It was frank and didn’t sound pandering.
I believed every word he said. One part did make me laugh, though. And when I look back at it now, it’s even funnier.
“I always go to America when I have down time because I can just chill,” he said. “When I go to New York, LA, Miami, it's still OK. There are always some people who recognize me, who know their soccer. But I can go to the movies any time and have a popcorn and a Pepsi and just sit down and that's it. When I'm there, I feel relaxed and comfortable.”
Henry’s profile has increased, and times have changed. No, he’s not exactly Derek Jeter or Eli Manning in terms of Big Apple sporting celebrities. But the odds that the World Cup winner, Euro champion and two-time European Golden Boot winner will be able to walk down the streets of Manhattan and quietly disappear into a multiplex are pretty slim. Almost comically so.
Henry is a global star. And he’s here for that reason: to keep increasing the profile of Major League Soccer, and of the game as a whole in this country.
The same was said of David Beckham three years ago. And while Becks has given MLS its biggest boost in credibility and p.r., he hasn’t been able to stay on the field. That’s why there’s more pressure on Henry now than perhaps any international acquisition in the history of the league.
Here’s Henry’s to-do list: raise his team’s profile locally, nationally and internationally; help keep a team with limited historical success onto the road to contender; be an ambassador for the league, both at home and abroad. In short, he has to be a politician, a marketer and a celebrity – and oh yeah, play some soccer, too. No sweat.
Just like that, MLS has itself arguably the biggest fish it has ever caught. Henry is an outspoken, eloquent guy who speaks three languages, is intelligent, charming, world-savvy and a proven winner. And he is brutally effective on the pitch, as I’m hoping Red Bulls foes are about to discover.
I’m not sure if raising the bar makes a noise. But if it does, we just heard it. Of course New York has all kinds of advantages. It’s the most exciting American city for any international traveler. It’s a sexy destination filled with sexy people. Soccer-wise, it has a club with some of the deepest pockets in MLS.
Still, Red Bull has just upped the ante in the game of can-you-top-this. We don’t know for sure, of course, if Henry will dominate the pitch and help New York keep winning – and even hoist the MLS Cup for the first time. But barring any unforeseen injury, I feel pretty confident in saying that Henry won’t hurt their chemistry and can only make them better.
Not just better. Evolved. A better organization. More credibility on the world scene. A destination for players anywhere. Someplace Thierry Henry would want to play.
Yes, the Galaxy struck first three years ago. They opened the door and showed the league it was possible to get an honest-to-goodness star, an icon. And yes, they, too, have resources most teams don’t. But I’d argue signing Henry is bigger. He does most of the things Beckham does. But he’s closer to the height of his powers and pulls in the highlight reels Becks doesn’t: goals. Lots of them.
This is a powerful message to the rest of MLS. No, most clubs probably can’t spend the kind of cash Red Bull is on a premiere player. But now they know what they can do. They know what they should do.
In short, Henry’s signing has changed the rules on a DP. You sign one, he has to be a hit. True, there probably aren’t many other Henrys sitting around waiting to be courted – we’re talking the perfect player, the perfect timing and the perfect place. But the days of taking a flier on a Marcelo Gallardo or a Denílson are over.
MLS clubs have to do their homework. They have to ask themselves, how sure are we that this player we’re talking to can impact our club? What are the risks? Are we absolutely sure he can help us on the field? Or raise our profile in our market? Ultimately: Is this guy worth it to our club?
I have no doubt that the next few weeks will see a handful of DPs added to the league. And they’ll run the gamut from the flashy (like Henry and Beckham) to the workmanlike impact player (like Blaise Nkufo or Branko Boskovic). But New York have just shown us what is possible in the present, and the dreamy possibilities of an amazing future.
For the rest of the 17 clubs in MLS: Go ahead and top this. We dare you.
Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. Read “The Throw-In” every Thursday.