The Thierry Henry signing by the New York Red Bulls has been framed much as the David Beckham signing was framed in Los Angeles: will it bring tons of new fans to the spectacular Red Bull Arena? Or will it fail to allow soccer to take hold in some undefined way?
But I see the Henry signing in different terms: it locks in the gains already made by the Red Bulls. While this doesn't mean that new fans will flock to Harrison, it is an important step nonetheless.
In an excellent write-up about the Henry signing over at All Things Footy, the point is made that for whatever reason, the team has kept the publicity surrounding Thierry Henry awfully cryptic. As a result, even the soccer-fan public knows very little about the imminent signing.
But moreover, what is Henry's true profile in America, outside of the fans who already flock to Red Bull Arena? He is not as well-known as Beckham, nor anywhere close. This is not a soccer player, in other words, who has crossed over culturally- so expecting him to lure those people to soccer is asking a bit much.
However, as our own Joseph Fortunato pointed out today of Henry, "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."
Furthermore, there simply doesn't need to be a silver bullet for MLS success. Look at attendance for the Red Bulls this year: up 42 percent over last season. For those fans, the team has offered a simple equation: come for RBA, stay for the Henry.
Notice also the total: an average of 16,272 fans per match- roughly what the Knicks drew last season. A league with strong, steady growth doesn't need to find a way to turn its fortunes around -- it simply needs to solidify the bond with those already in the fold, and ideally, gradually add more fans.
Now if Henry is joined by a creative midfielder like former Barcelona teammate Rafael Marquez, the team will suddenly have the kind of firepower up front, with Juan Pablo Angel, that will make must-see goals a regular occurrence. Chances are, that team will also build on the to-date success this year. And winning will draw even more fans to Harrison.
So if the response to Henry isn't immediate sellouts, it doesn't make the signing a failure. Instead, think of the Henry signing as a valentine to Red Bulls fans, and a big piece toward building a winning team. It isn't more than that, in all likelihood. And it doesn't need to be.