For a team that made a lot of noise this season, from opening a new stadium to winning the Eastern Conference title, it was probably the Red Bulls’ signing of Thierry Henry that garnered the most attention.
Many thought it was bigger news than David Beckham’s move to Los Angeles, that it was the start of a new era not just for the Red Bulls, but for MLS as a whole.
Henry, they said, was more than an aging ambassador of soccer. He seemed like the kind of star player who could take over the pitch and light up scoreboards across the country.
So far, however, that star power has netted just two goals in 11 MLS games. And then there's the knee injury.
After sitting out his third consecutive game as the Red Bulls began the playoffs in San Jose, Henry hopes to be available for the November 4th meeting with the Earthquakes at Red Bull Arena. It is unlikely, however, that he will start.
He has shown flashes of the Thierry Henry of old—he still has the delicate finishing touch that won him a pair of Golden Boots, a World Cup and plenty of other honors back in Europe—but he was never the type to win games or score goals on his own. He was always a part of great teams.
Understanding this, first-year Red Bulls general manager Erik Soler did his best to remake the New York midfield. He brought in Joel Lindpere, Mehdi Ballouchy, the rookie Tony Tchani and most notably Rafael Marquez. Not to mention the addition of head coach Hans Backe, whose job it’s been to make all the pieces fit.
The result? Well, Dane Richards has gotten a lot better, hasn’t he?
Faced with a slew of injuries, Backe had to look to 17-year-old striker Juan Agudelo against San Jose, and short of scoring a goal, he showed that he could fit in just fine. Between him, Ibrahim Salou and Juan Pablo “Hey, I’m still here” Angel, Henry is looking a little bit less than essential.
When looking at the transformation of the Red Bulls over the course of the season, at how the team that lost four games in May was able to right the ship, Henry is only a small part of the story. His mark on the team so far has been mostly about marketing.
To this end, the Red Bull management will likely not be dissatisfied. To the extent that Henry’s job was to sell tickets and souvenirs, he has done it, and this may be a role that Henry is comfortable with.
The weight of winning is only lightly on his shoulders, and he has plenty of time to pose for photographs and enjoy the luxury of his new SoHo triplex apartment. While he may indeed come up big in the playoffs this week, the Red Bulls won’t win or lose because of him.
Next year, however, on-the-field expectations may linger. With the impending departure of Juan Pablo Angel and a full preseason’s worth of preparation, fans will want to see something spectacular from the legendary Frenchman, and he will need to be fit enough to oblige.