HARRISON NJ - JULY 15: Thierry Henry walks out onto the field prior to a press conference on July 15 2010 at Red Bull Arena in Harrison New Jersey. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Red Bulls)
MLS soccer isn't about winning. It's about Thierry Henry.
No, Thierry Henry isn't in his prime. Yes, he's still very good.
My story with Henry begins two years ago, in Chinatown. I'd seen him play for France and Arsenal, but, obviously, never in person. He was here for Steve Nash's now-annual Showdown in Chinatown event, a playful soccer game between world-famous soccer players and his various friends from around the NBA, now played every year the day before the NBA Draft in Chinatown's Sara D. Roosevelt Park to raise money for his Steve Nash foundation.
That first year, the cast included Chelsea's Solomon Kalou, Mathieu Flamini, America's own Jozy Altidore, some other retired soccer players, NBA players such as Jason Kidd, Baron Davis (who played the whole game with a baseball cap and glasses on), Leandro Barbosa, and Raja Bell. And Thierry Henry.
To Henry, he took the game as seriously as anybody would take a glorified pickup game. He jogged and fooled around with the ball when it came to him. But then, for some reason - I think Baron Davis smacked at the ball with his hands in the box - the referee, whose job was mainly to joke around with the players, called a penalty. I was standing about 10 feet behind the goal where Henry was shooting, behind a chain-link fence. This kid I was with took out a cameraphone, and after searching violently through youtube, I just found the video.
Now, the ability to score from 15 feet away on an amateur goalie in a charity soccer game is no indication that Henry will change American soccer. (No clip proclaiming such a thing would feature Kidd randomly walking directly in front of somebody about to shoot a penalty kick.) But something about that shot struck me. I played a little bit of goalie in my day, and I'd never, ever seen anybody strike like that. The power, the placement, the fact that the ball drastically curves over the course of the 15 feet between Henry and the goal, the noise it makes when it hits the back of the net - that "CLANG" is the noise of a ball hitting a mesh net. Think about that. - just seemed so unreal. I was standing behind a chain-link fence and I flinched.
Now, I'm sure any professional soccer player is capable of kicking a ball with that tenacity. But the way Henry handled it - in the middle of this silly charity soccer game where he clearly wasn't paying any attention, just to turn on his full talent blasters just for a split second, to kick this one completely perfect ball - then go back to fooling around and everything - showed me Henry has a knack for two things: freaky offensive talent, and showmanship.
New York knows washed-up players. Our teams have a burning passion for bringing in the best of the best of five years ago: the Yankees have brought in retreads of Randy Johnson, 44-year old Roger Clemens, Kevin Brown, a down-trending Gary Sheffield, and numerous others. Isiah Thomas made a habit of building a franchise out of players that were awesome in 2003 such as Steve Francis, Jalen Rose, Vin Baker, and many more. The problem is, he took charge in 2004. (Not to mention last year's Tracy McGrady experience, which was at least cap motivated.) The Mets would win 148 games if this was the year 2005, and that's not even discussing their well-documented flirtations with such players as a downtrodden Pedro Martinez and others.
Henry is 32. In dog years, that's 224. In soccer player years, it's a little less, but essentially the same: Henry has virtually no chance of playing in the 2014 World Cup, and his club side just told him that they would rather let him leave for nothing in return so that they can start somebody named Pedro in his stead.
But first off, that's not to say Henry isn't a man of preposterous talent. Barcelona isn't ditching him because he's bad, they're ditching him because they're Barcelona, and they somehow manage to have better players. Barcelona has a history of taking the best players in the world, and signing them to huge contracts to be backups for slightly better players. Right now, they have David Villa, the aforementioned Pedro, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic fighting for two slots up front - they had no need for Henry, and are apparently looking to get rid of Ibrahimovic as well. Getting benched by Barcelona is an insult in the way that being one number off from hitting the lotto jackpot is disappointing.
Secondly, the Red Bulls aren't like the Yankees, Knicks, and Mets: they don't have fanbases expecting the team to compete year in, year out. (Actually, come to think of it, neither do the Knicks and Mets, but, just follow me here.) When Thierry Henry said that he wanted to help bring the Red Bulls to their first championship, I was surprised. I had assumed that they had previously won an MLS Championship, and I just hadn't heard about it. I'm a soccer fan, but no part of me is interested in the goings-on of the MLS. I don't know who is successful, I don't want to know, and I don't care.
Henry is a more interesting move than bringing in another player - maybe one who is even better - that would lead to more successful soccer. Let's say instead of Henry, the Red Bulls went and got a better player, like one of his former Barcelona teammates who led Spain to a World Cup victory. Let's say they signed Xavi, the passing perfectionist in the midfield whose pinpoint accuracy would allow the Red Bulls to control possession and weave meticulous, intricate circles around the defense of the Seattle Sounders. Or Carles Puyol, the world's best center back, who would stifle strikers of teams such as the Philadelphia Union, keeping them from even smelling the back of the net.
Nobody would care.
Henry is an offensive talent the likes of which have never been seen in America. Yes, he might be five years removed from his three-year stint of being the leading goalscorer in the Premiership, but he's still much more relevant than David Beckham was when he arrived in Los Angeles. He's a goalscorer. He's a creator and a finisher. I don't care if the Red Bulls have a very successful stint and go on to lead the MLS' Eastern Division. (Do they even have divisions?) I don't care if they're slightly sub-par and finish in the middle of the pack. What matters is that we get to see Thierry Henry play.
What I learned watching Henry take that penalty in Chinatown two years ago is that as someone who didn't grow up rooting for a local soccer team, successful soccer won't necessarily capture my imagination. I've come to appreciate the game as a whole watching various international competitions and mid-week Champions League matchups over the past few years of my life, but sometimes, the most exciting thing is something like what Henry did: something fascinating, something that came completely out of the context of an interesting soccer game. Something that astounded me. And Thierry Henry has the capability to do that in droves.
So come on, New York, get excited. Even if the Red Bulls themselves don't particularly matter. What matters is that they have Thierry Henry.