As New England Revolution head coach and sporting director Bruce Arena looks ahead to their Play-In Round game Friday night at Gillette Stadium (6:30 pm ET | TV & streaming info), it’s clear that he holds Montreal Impact head coach Thierry Henry in high esteem.
Henry, who played from 2010 to 2014 with the New York Red Bulls, has steered Montreal back to the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs, ending a three-year absence, during his first season in charge of the club. It's Henry's second managerial stint after just 20 games in charge of Ligue 1's AS Monaco.
To accomplish that during the COVID-19 pandemic is praiseworthy in and of itself, Arena feels.
“One thing that I think that's been challenging for Thierry, as well as it's challenging for people like myself and all the other coaches in the league, is dealing with your players during the pandemic,” Arena said Wednesday during a virtual press conference. “It was magnified in the case of Montreal given the fact that they had to leave home and take up shop in New Jersey. That's extremely challenging, and the fact that Thierry was able to get his team through this and qualify for the playoffs is remarkable. I would say he gets a real good grade in terms of being a leader of a club in a very difficult year.”
As Arena highlighted, Montreal — the Eastern Conference’s No. 9 seed — closed the year with home games at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey. A hotel lifestyle during COVID-19 replaced the comfort of home and competing at Stade Saputo or the Stade Olympique, like earlier in the 2020 season.
The Impact navigated those difficulties, needing a win over D.C. United on Decision Day presented by AT&T to clinch their playoff spot. All along, Arena saw a team that was adamant about playing on the ground, with Henry's playing days reflected in their approach.
“He's been pretty determined about the fact that he wanted his team to play and they build out of pressure and they've been pretty consistent with that,” Arena said. “That's not easy to do in a first year with a team, so I give him a lot of credit for that.”
When New England and Montreal meet, it’ll be their fifth game against each other this season. The Revs hold a 3W-1L-0D record so far, and Arena was asked if there’s a budding rivalry between the two clubs.
With his trademark dry humor, Arena expressed hope that any competition between him and the former Ballon d'Or finalist who won the 1998 FIFA World Cup, alongside trophies with Arsenal (England) and FC Barcelona (Spain), would not involve the two coaches taking to the field
“I don’t know about that,” Arena joked. “I don’t want to have a rivalry against Thierry Henry. Thank God we’re not playing against each other, Thierry and I. I hope not.”
Jokes aside, Arena feels that Henry’s big-game success from his playing career will only benefit Montreal on Friday. There’s a difference between doing it yourself and positioning a starting XI (and subs), of course, but Arena knows that Henry holds his players to a high standard.
“He knows how to step up in big games as a player, for sure, and I would imagine he's going to be able to convey that information and confidence to his players,” Arena said. “I think he's had a wonderful season in year one and I think we're going to have our hands full on Friday."