Under normal circumstances, the New York Red Bulls would use their upcoming midseason friendly to rest some fatigued starters and play some seldom-used reserves.
These are not normal circumstances.
The Red Bulls will host English Premier League club Arsenal on Saturday (5 pm ET, ESPN2) in a match that marks the Gunners’ first visit to the United States in 25 years. Tickets for their rare appearance sold out in a flash, and the national-television audience makes it arguably more important than any other previous friendly at Red Bull Arena (although the 2010 opener against Santos is tough to beat).
Then there is the juicy subplot of Thierry Henry, in what is possibly the final year of his decorated career, facing the club with which he became a legend.
“We’ve got some guys that are a bit tired, but it’s a big game, it’s on national TV, it’s going to be a packed house, so we need to go out and compete,” said Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke on Tuesday.
“We’re in the process right now of deciding on how to go about this game, especially because we have a game four days later – a big one in Salt Lake – so obviously guys won’t be going extensive minutes, but it’s going to be difficult to give a few players a full rest. We’re going to do some talking with them, analyzing them … and we’re going to put out the most competitive lineup that we can.”
That will not be easy, and it will be especially tough when it comes to Henry.
The 36-year-old Red Bulls captain could use a rest after playing all but two minutes in the 17 matches he has started this season – this after Petke's stated offseason desire to manage Henry’s minutes better this year – but a lengthy and emotional run-out appears to be in store for him.
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After all, this is a unique and possibly his final opportunity to be on the same field as the club for which he scored a record 228 goals and won two Premier League titles and three FA Cups.
“It’s a big game not only for Red Bull, but also for Thierry,” said Petke. “He’s a legend there, and he’s been quite possibly their most famous player to ever play there.
"Just because of that reason there, it doesn’t mean Thierry’s going to play 90 minutes – I don’t think he’s going to come close to it – but we’re going to sit down with him, sit down with the training staff and certain players and figure out what the best way to go is.”
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com.