Let's face it—for the MLS to truly "take off," the league desperately needed a genuine superstar playing in New York. The Red Bulls have finally lured a true footballing icon to the biggest media market in the country in Thierry Henry.
When the league and the Los Angeles Galaxy brought over the media darling David Beckham to market their sport to the American masses, "The Big Apple" collectively yawned. Local radio hosts snickered and even mocked the idea that Beckham could transform a country's interest in a sport that is largely overshadowed by baseball, basketball, and the monster that is the NFL.
As evidenced by the success of the NASL during its peak in the mid-to-late 1970s and the attendances at the 1994 World Cup in the US, there is definitely a market for soccer in the United States. No greater example of this could be found than the mighty New York Cosmos teams, led by Pelé.
The Cosmos were an undoubted hit with the likes of superstars Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia, and Carlos Alberto in their lineup. They packed Giants Stadium, averaging over 45,000 fans from 1978-1980. Legends like Johan Cruyff and George Best joined NASL clubs, but the league over-expanded and eventually folded in 1984 after the decline of the Cosmos.
Today, MLS clubs are in much healthier states than the old NASL franchises. The league's fanbase is growing by the year and now might be ready to truly soar after the recruitment of new fans, thanks to the United States National Team's exciting 2010 World Cup run. If the MLS is ever going to become a power in the American sports landscape—the time is now.
Henry's move to the New York Red Bulls is really the perfect way of testing the appetite of fans who have gotten a taste of the sport during the World Cup. The MLS needs New York to have a strong franchise and a genuine star of their own for the league to gain a foothold in a country that has deeply rooted affections of its own national sports.
What Henry brings to the MLS is something completely different than "The Beckham Experiment." Sure, Beckham's stunning free kicks and sublime crossing ability are wonderful sights to behold, but Henry is a true entertainer on the football pitch. The Frenchman will create more moments of magic that will get fans off their seats and, more importantly, skillfully dribble past defenders and score some magnificent goals.
Beckham's image and celebrity lifestyle aside, he was never going to be the sort of player to market the sport to the casual soccer fan in America. He's never been the player who could take on multiple defenders and create his own goal as he was always the provider for the goal-getters at Manchester United and Real Madrid.
Henry possesses the abilities that the average sports fan in the United States can relate to. They want to see goals and displays of artistry. In the way that Pelé dazzled American audiences in the 1970s, Henry can do the same for a new generation of soccer fans. New York is the perfect stage for the French maestro to show off his talents, as he holds the key to the future of the game's rise in America.