When MLS created the Designated Player rule several seasons ago, many fans were both excited and nervous. The benefits were obvious – it was an opportunity to retain great American players and attract great foreign players by allowing teams to offer a few salaries commensurate with the great leagues of Europe. The concern was always about the attitude these DPs would take. Would they really fit into a team and be willing to give their full efforts in squads that were several pegs below what they were used to? Would these DPs be past-their-prime glory seekers after that last decent paycheck? Were they here to play soccer or simply to eat out at restaurants in the relative anonymity that they can never get in Europe? Or, were they here for the most diabolical of all reasons – to simply enhance their personal branding at the behest of a shoe company.
Some DPs have done well, and others have been an embarrassment. However, there is one DP who seems intent on setting the standard for how high-quality foreign imports should treat the MLS and its fans, and luckily for American soccer supporters, it is one of the biggest imports MLS has ever made – the Red Bull’s Thierry Henry.
For Americans who have become soccer fans over the past decade, Henry is almost a mythological figure. As Fox Soccer Channel seeped into cable systems and onto satellite dishes around the country, watching Henry perform miracles for Arsenal became a Saturday morning ritual for many Americans. At the height of his powers, Arsenal played the prettiest soccer on earth. With Henry leading the charge, the 2003-2004 Arsenal went undefeated, and the highlight reel of Henry’s goals from that season would drop the jaw of even the most ardent soccer cynic.
And yet, Henry has always seemed to be a bit of a finicky teammate. He clearly had his favorites (Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, and Robert Pires seemed to be in an exclusive Arsenal club with Henry), and was never shy about showing his frustration with other Gunners, especially Jose Antonio Reyes and Robin van Persie.
This did not change tremendously when Henry went to Barcelona. Notwithstanding being a major contributor on the historic 2008/09 Barcelona team which won just about every trophy it could, Henry still seemed to be playing with a bit of a sour-puss of a face. Despite his 26 goals that season, he never seemed to really bond with either his teammates or the Nou Camp faithful. For MLS fans who knew Henry, this was a constant concern. If you cannot find love and respect in Barcelona, how is he supposed to find it in Harrison, NJ?
And yet, since coming to the Red Bulls, Henry looks like a man reborn. Henry seems intent on integrating into this Red Bull team and not dominating it, and his link-up play has been terrific. As Henry has gotten his fitness back, his football has become more dazzling. He is looking to form a striking partnership with Juan Pablo Angel, and yet there is nothing exclusive about his play. He is feeding every Red Bull that can get in position, and looking to be an outlet for every Red Bull who possesses the ball.
Most importantly, Henry looks like he is playing with joy for the first time in a long time. He was simply dazzling tonight against San Jose, and had his backwards lob evaded the tips of keeper John Busch’s extended fingers, Henry would have added a top 10 goal to his personal highlight reel. Finally, when his first Red Bull goal came, Henry proved himself to be a true teammate. The goal came after an outstanding cross by Dane Richards, and landed at Henry’s feet in a position where it was harder to miss than to score. Henry did score, and though it was the moment that many Red Bull fans were waiting for, Henry immediately pointed at Richards to tell the crowd who really created that goal, and went over to lift the diminutive winger into the air.
This has been in line with Henry’s attitude since coming to New York. He has been open and engaging with the press, full of praise for the fans, complimentary towards his teammates and in every way an exemplary addition. On the field, he is working hard to make space for himself and his teammates, has been full of effective, strategic running, and has generally put in the donkey work that all great strikers need to do 10 times in order to create that one chance.
This is completely encouraging because at 33, with the shorter MLS season and having announced his retirement from international football, Henry has every chance of keeping his legs for several more years. As opposed to David Beckham, Henry shows no signs of playing with one eye in MLS and another on European loans and national team duty. Henry’s commitment to MLS seems total, and his approach has been that of the pure professional.
For the Designated Player system to work in MLS, DPs have to show what Henry seems intent on displaying – a total commitment. If DPs become perceived as a enjoying a comfortable pit stop on their way towards their post-soccer career, American sports fans will sniff out the fraud. However, if Henry can continue to serve as a model for what DPs should, MLS teams will continue to entice skill and fame into their rosters.