There is a common misconception when it comes to the United States and its hatred for soccer. Most people think that Americans simply don't like soccer, that they hate the sport all-together. That is simply not true. I was there -- way back in 2006 -- when, then superstar, Freddy Adu and his DC United team took on David Beckham and his Real Madrid squad at Quest field in Seattle. The game ended in a 1-1- draw (neither Adu nor Beckham found the back of the net), although the game was exhilarating. Mainly because of the 66+ thousand people that filled the stadium.
Adu would, of course, go on to have one of the biggest falls from grace in recent memory, and not even make the 2010 United States World Cup team. Beckham would end up coming to the United States to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy, in the biggest transfer move in MLS history.
The misconception to the rest of the world is that Americans hate soccer. The reality is that Americans just hate the MLS. There is a huge difference between the two.
If you ask around, many sports fans in the United States are, in fact, soccer fans. Instead of following the MLS, though, they usually follow the English Premier League or even international appearances by the United States national team. Why, you ask? Mainly because the quality of play is so much higher in the English Premier League and international soccer; the talent pool isn't anywhere near as diluted as it is in the MLS.
Enter Beckham and Landon Donovan. Two great players in the world, who have the talent and skill to play in the English Premier League, but happen to play in the MLS. This is a big deal for soccer in the United States, because to put it frankly: if soccer is going to grow as a sport in the United States, it starts with Major League Soccer.
Guys like Beckham and Donovan help immensely, for two reasons. For starters they are big time names that people want to come see play. When it became official that Beckham was coming to LA the backlash was instantaneous. Cities where he was bound to play in the season, sold out, and the New York Red Bulls vs. LA Galaxy at Giants Stadium netted more than 40,000 fans.
The second reason why guys like Beckham and Donovan help the MLS's cause, is because they raise the talent level for the entire league. Other players who have the skill to play elsewhere might consider a move to the MLS because they can play against top end talent, and do it in the United States to boot. Now the MLS isn't at that "top-end talent" point yet, but it's getting there, slowly but surely.
Now enter Thierry Henry, one of the greatest players in soccer history, who is reportedly joining the Red Bulls Thursdsy. The 32 year-old French striker, who scored 226 goals and added 92 assists in 369 Premier League matches with Arsenal, is widely considered one of the greatest players to ever play the game. Henry also added 49 goals and 26 assists in 121 appearances with Barcelona, after they bought his rights from Arsenal three years ago.
Henry is one of the classiest players in the game, and was my favorite player while he was at Arsenal (I am a huge Arsenal fan). No matter where he was on the pitch he was always dangerous, whether or not it was him scoring a goal or him assisting on one. He was one of those rare players that can make everyone around him better with his vision (like Beckham), or go out there and score 30 goals a year himself (like Donovan) all rolled into one. There are few players like him, and now he is in the MLS.
Good for him -- this is a move he has long talked about wanting to make -- and good for the MLS. A guy like Henry brings in more talent, more flare and most importantly, more eyeballs from soccer but not MLS fans.
The best part of Henry is the game he plays. He is a name as big as Beckham (if not bigger) but with the flare of Donovan. And since Beckham has never been a goal scorer (it's never been his style of play), the casual fans that came to watch him expecting him to light it up every night never appreciated his talents, and went back to the anti-soccer dwelling that they had previously resided in. They didn't appreciate his picture perfect crosses, his crisp passes into the box, his ability to effortlessly pull defenses apart, or his brilliance at set pieces.
Now the MLS has a guy that can do all that, and add 25+ goals a year. The plan was for the MLS to integrate high end talent as fast as they could, in order to get more fans to become addicted. Henry is a heavy dose of that top-flight talent, and exactly what the doctor ordered. Even casual soccer fans have heard his name-and not just because of the World Cup Qualifying hand ball incident-and every soccer fan is aware of his class.
Go Red Bulls! Go Henry! I couldn't be more excited, and neither can even the casual soccer fans in the United States.