In anticipation of opening weekend in Major League Soccer, MLSsoccer.com will profile five of the biggest names in the league heading into the 2014 season. Continuing the series is Editor-in-Chief Greg Lalas, who offers his thoughts on New York Red Bulls star Thierry Henry, possibly entering his final season in MLS.
He respects his teammates more than you think. He loves New York. He's actually gotten better with age. And yes, he does care about his legacy. The Red Bulls open the season at Vancouver on Saturday (7:30 pm ET, MLS Live).
1. Thierry Henry is not a perfectionist. Let’s get this out of the way, because it’s something that has set the tone ever since Henry arrived in 2010. Perfection, obviously, is unattainable in sports. You will never have 100 percent possession or 100 percent conversion rates on chances created. You will never go 90 minutes without a misplayed pass, a heavy touch, or a blown marking assignment on a corner kick. There are just too many variables and intricacies in the game. Despite his body language and rants at his teammates on the field, even Henry knows this.
So he does not demand perfection. But he does demand something that many American players have traditionally lacked: the recognition of the right thing to do in every situation. Where the ball should be played in this moment or that. When the run should be made to attack space or open space. How the goal should be created. Knowing the right thing is more than just the result of studying tactical diagrams and repeating patterns of play. It's the confidence, instilled by coaches, that what you are learning is indeed the right thing. (This is rapidly changing for American/Canadian players, by the way.)
2. Despite his appearances, he respects his teammates. In 1996, in a previous life, I was a player for the Tampa Bay Mutiny (RIP), and the ingenious Colombian playmaker Carlos Valderrama was my teammate. Playing with "Pibe" remains to this day one of the great joys of my sporting life. I wasn't very good, so he generally had two reactions to my play during training: 1) If I did something well, he would give me his trademark sideways thumbs-up and say, "Good, Greg. Good," or 2) if I screwed up, he would not react all and instead just turn around and jog back to his position. Nothing jabbed at my psyche like Pibe's non-reactions. They affirmed not only that I had made a mistake, but also that he didn't think I was worth the time and energy to complain.
To his mind, I would never improve enough to make a difference. So when I watch Henry yell, scoff, berate or do that pleading, arms-outstretched gesture he does when the pass isn't just right, my heart cringes for the teammate feeling his wrath. But I always whisper under my breath, "At least he didn't just turn around and jog back to his position."
3. The bicycle kick goal is not his best in MLS. Neither is the Olimpico. Or even that volley off the post. No, this is his best goal in MLS. Vintage Titi: impeccable run, immaculate touch, silky finish. A perfect example of former French international William Gallas's description of Henry: "You have to watch Henry like you watch milk on the stove. Look away for a split second and you're in trouble. "
4. That six-second countdown thing is infurating. But ... He does it just about every time the opposing goalkeeper collects the ball, lurking near the top of the box, glaring at the referee, one hand on his hip, the other thrust up in the sky, ticking off the seconds, reminding the referee that there is a six-second rule for goalkeeper possession. It is the most impudent gesture in Henry's arsenal. However, I have to say: He's got a point. Rarely does the ball leave the goalkeeper's hands before Henry has lifted a seventh digit. To put it in Henry's way of thinking, the referee is not doing the right thing. I can't say for sure that Henry's protestations played a role in MLS's decision to crack down on time-wastiing in 2014, but it wouldn't surprise me.
5. Sometimes a tattoo is more than just a tattoo. Henry has talked many times about why he joined the Red Bulls. He wanted a new challenge. He wanted to win championships. But, as we have all suspected, the deep-lying truth is: He wanted to live in New York. “Everybody knows that I love this city," he said in 2010. For an athlete, of course, that kind of love is not for cowards, to paraphrase the author Robert Andrew Powell. Thriving here requires skin thick enough to handle the weight of expectation, the glare of the bright lights, and those dreadful moments when this city of 8.3 million people feels like the loneliest place on earth. And that's why he tattooed the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, and the Brooklyn Bridge on his left arm. A wiseblood reminder of where he is, why he came here, and who he represents.
6. "As I told you before" tells you a lot. That phrase is Henry's verbal tic. His tell. He uses it when he's annoyed by a question he has heard before, answered before, and now sick of. This year, the questions are about his playing future, about whether the Red Bulls will finally win the MLS Cup, about his legacy. Rote stuff, I know. But here's the deal, Thierry: This is how the sports media works. We are feeding the beast – and there is a very significant beast of North American soccer fans that are interested in everything you say.
Now, we journalists are not all that clever, and we often fall back on the tried-and-true questions. But there's a method to the repetitive madness: Even though you may think you have answered all the same questions before, your answers actually differ ever so slightly from day to day. Also, how you answer them changes over time. Kind of like a player's skills. And it's those differences we're interested in. It's part of what makes a professional player here. How does he evolve? How does he respond under the constant glare? So you may think you have told us all before, but you actually haven't.
7. Numbers don't lie. Ever. When a forward carries a big price tag and a big name, he better put up some big numbers. Henry, of course, arrived in the Big Apple bearing the shimmer of record-breaking exploits in Europe: His 226 goals* for Arsenal were the most ever in club history. He would do that here, too, right? Not exactly. Still, he has scored 41 goals for the Red Bulls since in 100 appearances across all competitions – which is basically the same strike rate he had at FC Barcelona. And since he arrived in mid-2010, he has scored the third most goals of anyone in MLS.
* He added two more during a later loan stint.
8. He is actually getting better. Say what you will about Henry's diminishing skills – and at 36, he is obviously not the same player he was when he was 26 – but one very specific, very important statistic says he is improving. Over the course of his MLS career, the number of chances he has created per game has steadily increased:
2010: .80 per 90 mins.
2011: 1.27 per 90 mins.
2012: 2.43 per 90 mins.
2013: 2.50 per 90 mins.
Those are chances created for himself and for others. What does it mean? Has he adjusted his style to become a playmaker? Has he figured out the best way to beat MLS defenses?
9. He needs a strong coach. Whatever went down between Henry and head coach Mike Petke at that infamous practice in late August, there's no denying its impact on the side. Petke benched Henry for that weekend's game, and the Red Bulls finished out the season 6-0-2 to win the Supporters' Shield. Henry produced three goals and two assists during that run, and more importantly, he seemed fully a part of the team. Throughout his career, he has thrived under headstrong managers – Arsene Wenger, Pep Guardiola, Jean Tigana, Aimé Jacquet – who can push him. No surprise, then, that he responded the moment Petke pushed him back.
10. He's willing to play along. Sometimes, you get the sense that Henry thinks anything off the field is just a silly sideshow and that he's above it all. Then he agrees to do something like #FlipHenry and we all realize that he doesn't always take himself too seriously, and that, yes, he is a human being after all.
11. Yes, he does care about his legacy. Eventually, I guess, it is inevitable that every world-class player, as he nears the end of his incredible career, comes to recognize the larger impact of his presence. I never thought I would hear Henry admit that winning isn't everything, but he did. "Above all for me, if I can make my teammates better, [make] them understand what it is to be a competitor, so when I leave they get that and understand that. That would be more valuable to me than winning the league."
12. No pressure, but it's time to win the whole league. Maybe it's the Beckham legacy effect – David Beckham won the whole enchilada in his 5th season with the LA Galaxy – or the fact that this could be Henry's last season. But this is it. This is the year that the Red Bulls have to – have to – win the MLS Cup. The Supporters' Shield was nice and all, but, as Henry himself admitted to me, that was insufficient: "As we all know, if we were in Europe, that would be enough," he said. "But we are not in Europe. You have to win the MLS Cup."