HARRISON, N.J. – With Thierry Henry set to make his MLS debut on Saturday night against the Houston Dynamo, MLSsoccer.com sat down with two of the men who helped seal one of the biggest deals in MLS history happen.
Red Bulls managing director Erik Stover joined the organization in January 2008 and first began courting Henry later that year. Erik Solér, a former agent, joined RBNY as the general manager and sporting director last December, and was saddled with the job of building the team that would one day surround one of the greatest players in the world.
MLSsoccer.com: Take us back to roughly two years ago, when people first started hearing rumors about Thierry Henry and MLS. How did it all start?
Stover: I would say the catalyst that he was relatively open to coming to MLS, and he had spoken of his love for New York pretty openly. So I sort of picked that up, honestly, through [current Arsenal chief executive and former deputy commissioner of MLS] Ivan Gazidis, who passed me off to Thierry’s agent, Darren Dein, when I first got the job.
This was around May 2008. And then it was a long run of letting the player and the agent know that we were interested, and putting something special together, and answering their questions. There were no negotiations – he was under contract with Barcelona, and playing every day at a very high level. We were just talking about what our future was, and what his future was.
MLSsoccer.com: At the point when he first expressed interest in coming to New York, did you realistically think he was actually attainable?
Stover: We always knew we were going to go after the biggest available player that made sense for this league. And every time we did the math, it always came back to Thierry Henry. World recognition was important, someone who could come in and move the needle for not just us, but for the entire league. Every time you look at his resume, you can’t think of a guy who can line up with his accomplishments.
So with a team with a mediocre history, we wanted a designated player who had certainly won a lot. We’re investing so much in our academy, it would help the academy kids and the young college kids to get an idea of what it means to be a champion.
MLSsoccer.com: Did you feel any pressure finding a superstar, not only due to the size of the New York market, but that the gauntlet had been thrown down by Los Angeles getting David Beckham?
Stover: It was never, “Can we one-up LA?” We never thought that.
MLSsoccer.com: But you couldn’t have settled for a second-tier DP. Not in New York.
Stover: We wouldn’t have, because we were fighting to get to three designated players. We were very vocal on the board level; we felt it was very important for this league and for this team, and to fill [Red Bull Arena] on a regular basis, to have more than one or two designated players. So we were never thinking smaller, but we were always thinking there would be three.
MLSsoccer.com: Who else was on the radar?
Stover: A lot of guys. Honestly, we could probably put together a team that would finish in the top five or six in the Premiership with the guys who contacted us.
MLSsoccer.com: New York is such a diverse market. Did you ever feel like any pressure to sign a DP to appease any of the ethnic demographics here?
Stover: I hear that all the time, and I get really frustrated by it. Particularly in this market, the people are very savvy. All they want is a good football team. And they’re not necessarily going to go if the player is Mexican, Portuguese, Costa Rican, Jewish or whatever. We’ve heard all of that before. And I think that’s largely true around the league.
Cuauhtémoc Blanco sold tickets when he went on the road, but for Chicago, they had to win to sell tickets regularly at home. We don’t look at a player’s nationality; we look at a player who can make the team better. If he happens to fit nicely into a group who has a large population here, all the better.
MLSsoccer.com: What do you think was your best selling point?
Stover: It starts with [Red Bull Arena]. Everything we do has been improved with this building. For example, if we had tried to do a studio show with a web stream of Thierry Henry’s press conference at Giants Stadium, it would not have come off nearly as well as it did here. Those are the options that we’ve never had before.
So when we were talking to the player and the agent [in 2009], you’re making them understand that while you look at our team now and we’re at the bottom of the table and there’s no one in the building, the world is going to be very different.
Solér: When I came in, to be honest, this team wasn’t very good. If you looked at the last season, they were in shambles. So we made up our mind to spend the first three months focused on getting complementary players like Joel Lindpere and Roy Miller, guys like that who could stabilize things. And then I would say for the last four months, it’s been about really cranking up the speed.
MLSsoccer.com: Was it tough, then, to sell him on the future of a team that wasn’t playing well when you were having these discussions?
Solér: Actually, on the contrary. He’s been to Arsenal, played with the French national team and played with the best team in the world in Barcelona. He’s done everything. He needed to be assured there was ability on the team. And when I met him I talked to him, and said, “There is ability.” There was room to grow and get better here.
And I think one of his most important assets is his ability to talk to people and direct people and make them better. So I think that was one of the things he liked, that this is a growing league and a team on the rebuild, and really at the starting point. He’s a winner and he wants to be part of building this, and we all think we can.
MLSsoccer.com: At what point did the conversations really pick up steam, when you were really talking about negotiations and numbers?
Stover: Probably a couple months out of last season. He was under contract with Barcelona, and we respected that. We needed to make sure that the three parties had an understanding of his future, and we didn’t want to be a distraction for their season or for his future. And we certainly didn’t want to jump the gun because we weren’t patient enough. While there were leaks all over the place, the seriousness of this wasn’t real until the last couple months.
MLSsoccer.com: Was it frustrating that there were so many leaks, or was that beneficial to create some hype surrounding his arrival?
Stover: We ended up having fun with it, because it was out for so long. But we never would have done it like that if it was a different player under different circumstances. It hasn’t helped, but it didn’t necessarily hurt that it was constantly out there. Our players had to answer it, our managers had to answer it for a year-and-a-half, and there really wasn’t much to say.
It’s funny with the news cycle around the world, somebody prints something from an unnamed source and everyone picks it up. It becomes part of the fact. You go back and look at the original story from January or February this year, and you see one unnamed source without specifying who the source was or how he was connected to anybody, and everybody runs with it.
But we’ll never comment about any players under contract with another team, and nothing really came out of Thierry’s camp. That’s the way the world works.
MLSsoccer.com: When did you feel like the deal was finally done?
Stover: You never feel like it’s done until it’s actually signed. You get to a deal in principle, and then there are still 20 other things that cause a person heartburn after you get to the deal in principle. That happens with a lot of players, guys falling through at the end.
Solér: I’ve been a football agent for 15 years, and I’ve been in so many deals when something happened at the last second to make it fall through. In this sport, when it’s done and you have the international certificate, then it’s done. Boom. Not one second before.
MLSsoccer.com: What do you say to those wondering if Henry’s prime has passed?
Stover: One thing that hasn’t been written a lot and people haven’t really picked up on, and that’s not fair to him, is that he was hurt last year with Barcelona. Everyone’s saying he’s washed up because he didn’t play for Barcelona or he didn’t play for the French National Team.
I think that’s really unfair, because he was playing and he got hurt [Henry had a spinal injury], seriously hurt, and he debated surgery. He decided to play through it, and he lost his starting job because of it. And he didn’t lose it to a sack of potatoes, he lost it to Pedro, who you could argue was the best player on the field in the World Cup final.
He’s had some very unfair criticism. We were very confident that we were going to get the player everyone saw for 45 minutes [in Henry’s debut last Thursday against Tottenham]. I think it’s going to continue like that.
MLSsoccer.com: People are saying that Nery Castillo is out to prove something about himself in Chicago. Do you feel like Thierry, then, feels the same way?
Stover: He’s super-competitive. He’s always been out to prove something, throughout his entire career. I don’t think he pays too much attention to the headlines. He answers the questions to the best of his ability, and he just lets his play do the rest of the talking for him.
Solér: He’s here to play soccer. That’s the thing for us, and that’s what makes me very calm about the whole situation. He loves to play soccer and he loves to train with the guys. You see him with the guys, and he loves to be the part of the team. It’s not like he’s here to do all of these other things and then he says, “Oh, I have to go to training now and play some soccer.” He’s here to play, and he wants to win.
MLSsoccer.com: Did you get the chance to reflect on what you and the team had accomplished?
Stover: My wife yells at me all the time because I don’t stop and smell the roses, but I tried to [at Henry’s debut against Tottenham last week]. I stood down on the field for the first 10 or 15 minutes, and there was such a great ovation for him, I think he really appreciated it. The play in the first 15 minutes while I was down there was electric. You could feel it in the building. When he came on that loose ball in the sixth minute, if he had scored, I probably would have cried like a baby