EDITOR'S NOTE: Before you know it, February 29 will be here. That's the kickoff to the 25th season in Major League Soccer history and we're getting you ready for the 2020 campaign with the stories, personalities and questions that will leave their mark on the season to come.
This is what Thierry Henry wanted. He made the call. He pursued the job.
A fresh start outside the European glare. A Petri dish to experiment with the beliefs he’s honed playing and working for some of the game’s greatest minds. An opportunity to express himself as a manager, as he did so eloquently as a player and a commentator. A comfortable place to push those 104 bizarre, ill-fated days at Monaco, “a very unfavorable mix of circumstances” in the words of the club’s then-CEO, out of sight and out of mind.
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We all know Thierry Henry the player. Wednesday night (8 pm ET | FS2, TUDNxtra 1 in US; TSN5, RDS in Canada), in one of the region’s most iconic venues, we begin to get to know Thierry Henry the coach. Henry the problem solver. Henry the motivator. Henry the communicator. Henry the tactician. Henry the club figurehead.
What sort of coach will Henry be? Finding out the answer to that question will be one of the great joys of the 2020 MLS season. We simply don’t know. And in many ways neither does Henry. He’s never been here. Never done it. Never led a preseason camp. Never been the man for a full campaign, let alone half of one.
He’s learning on the job. This is what he wanted.
How quickly he learns will define the Impact’s season (and short- and medium-term future as well). Henry is unquestionably the club’s biggest star, on the sideline as he was as a player, and he may also be the biggest unknown at a club with quite a few of them.
How will Montreal replace both the production and presence of Ignacio Piatti? Are they more than a counterattacking team? Is Bojan a No. 9? Where do they want to fit in the new hierarchy of MLS? Can sporting director Olivier Renard deliver on his buy-low, sell-high plan in the transfer market? What about those headlines swirling around him back in Belgium? More generally, will they miss the playoffs … again? If so, will the city get behind them?
In the midst of it all, I expect Henry to eschew the club’s previous reliance on the brilliance of the individual – think over-reliance on names like Piatti, Didier Drogba and Marco Di Viao – for the strength of the collective.
He doesn’t have a choice. Outside of perhaps Bojan, there’s no outsized star on this roster. This season will surely be a work in progress.
Think back to Henry’s most eloquent moments: illustrating and describing Pep Guardiola’s highly-drilled insistence on tactical responsibility, or even the below quote from 2012 describing Peter Vermes’s direct, high-pressing Sporting Kansas City sides.
“They go forward together, they defend together. They put their body on the line or they’re blocking shots. They’re very aggressive in a good way and have a good attitude. You have to give a lot of credit to their boss; he’s been doing a tremendous job for more than one-and-a-half years,” Henry said. “… They’re just well, well-organized. I think that will be the word I would use. As I said you can see their boss is putting them in the right shape every time and the right tactics to help them.’’
It's that last line that I will use to evaluate Henry’s first full year as a head coach. Is he putting his team in the right shape and the right tactics to help them? Can he translate what’s in his soccer brain to his team?
The expectations are modest. They ought to be. Compete. Show progress week to week. Coax improvement out of individual players. Be in the running for a playoff spot. Hopefully, sneak into one and make a run. Most importantly, stay true to the course the club has set this offseason. Why hire Henry if you don’t plan on being patient? Yes, I'm asking that of a club that's seen seven managers in the past eight years.
For the Impact to be successful, they’ll have to be greater than the sum of their parts. Henry won’t have the most expensive stars in the league at his disposal. He won’t have a star No. 10, at least not to start. He won’t have a crutch to lean on. Henry has veterans. He has a couple of proven difference makers. He has green Homegrowns. He has a newcomer from the Canadian Premier League. He has a team to remake in whatever image he chooses.
Henry finally has a canvas, something to paint as he attempts to translate his individual brilliance to collective success in a league that both thrilled and frustrated him as a player. He’s got Patrick Vieira to look to as an example for how MLS can be the perfect starting point for an ambitious young manager. He’s got a chance to prove he’s more than Monaco.
He got what he wanted. Now, what will he do with it?