HARRISON, N.J. – The thing most will remember from this summer night at Red Bull Arena is Thierry Henry becoming the all-time leader in assists for the New York Red Bulls with a masterful performance.
But just as influential as his goal and three assists was the way he lit a fire under his club, berating his teammates at halftime to set the tone for an improved collective showing that ended with three emphatic points.
Henry was simply at his best on Saturday night, involved in all four of New York’s goals in an impressive 4-1 victory over the Columbus Crew that saw him grab the record for most assists in Red Bulls history with 37.
He showed off his large array of weapons, killing defenders with explosive dribbles on the ball, crafty turns, pinpoint passes and a perfectly-placed game-winner.
The 36-year-old Red Bulls captain also demonstrated his ability to lead, sparking his teammates with a message that started after his goal and carried over into the intermission.
It was not pleasant, but it was necessary.
“At halftime, he was fuming [about] just the way we were playing – we went up 1-0, we just gave up a bad goal – and we got the lead again and even when we got the lead we were just giving up big chances,” said goalkeeper Luis Robles.
“He came in at halftime and was just irate and in a way it was good because he took it out on the [Crew] in the second half. Obviously that was vintage Thierry. When he plays like that, there’s not a defense in the league that’s going to be able to stop him.”
It might be fitting that Henry set the record this week, one in which he was seen at training trying to help teammates in any way possible. On Thursday, he tried helping Robles with his goal-kick accuracy and form by running some drills with him after training.
On Friday, he cultivated the youth by working with Matt Miazga, instructing the young center on how to fend off Henry and his big frame while battling for goal kicks that Robles aimed from afar.
Henry’s selflessness and team-first mentality have been overlooked, not just this week, but over the course of the entire season. He is playing further away from goal more often, pulling the creative strings in the midfield to help set up teammates for quality looks.
That's a big reason why he has just four goals this season but nine assists – and why the red-hot Bradley Wright-Phillips leads MLS in scoring with 15 goals.
“There’s not many people that can go out on the left and play like a winger, drop back and play like a central midfielder,” said Wright-Phillips. “We’re lucky to have that and it’s very unselfish of him to do that. He’s got the ability to play up front and get a bag full of goals. It’s very unselfish of him and I’m enjoying it.”
By serving as the de facto playmaker in the absence of a true No. 10, Henry is filling one of the Red Bulls’ more pressing needs. This has proved gravely important, because the club has shown in the past that it struggles to create chances when Henry is deployed further up the field.
It also explains head coach Mike Petke’s reluctance to pull the plug on Henry early in matches, despite stating in the offseason that he needed to manage the aging veteran’s minutes better than in 2013.
“I would love to get Thierry out in the 60th minute of many games to rest him with games coming up, but he shows having him on the field, he’s always a threat,” said Petke. “His performance tonight, purely on scoring opportunities and assists, is world class and that’s why he is on the field game in and game out.”
It might have been even more impressive had some of Henry’s teammates finished a few more of their chances. Regardless, this was a special night for a special player capable of leading both on the field and in the locker room.
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by email at Franco8813@gmail.com.