If Thierry Henry’s about to say goodbye to Major League Soccer, he’s doing so on a high note. His stint is one that caps one of the most productive four-and-a-half year stretches in league history. True, extending his deal at Red Bull Arena could still happen, but there’s a growing and now very public feeling the 37-year-old, out of contract at the end of the year, will use this fall has his sunset. With 48 goals, 39 assists in 113 MLS games thus far, one of the league’s biggest stars may ride off into that impending night.
On Saturday in Harrison, N.J., the four-time All-Star gave Red Bulls fans a brilliant, almost wistful reminder of what they will miss, a process that didn’t start until after the wayward Impact took a first half lead. Then, the captain responded. A layout header in the 59th. A topspin bouncer in the 67th. A perfectly weighted through ball for Bradley Wright-Phillips in the 74th. With a stern reaction that spoke to his intent, Henry, evermore the worn solider harnessing his moments of brilliance, left no doubt. I took this game over. I won it for us. I can still be elite.
The outburst gives Henry seven goals and 11 assists this year. Maintain his current rates through game 34 and Henry could end up with 10 and 16, the latter a career high. Most years, that puts you in the MVP conversation. This year, given how important he’s been to New York – propping Wright-Phillips up as the league’s top scorer – Henry’s numbers might put him among the favorites.
It would have been unreasonable for New York to expect more from a man who was supposed to be their David Beckham, though in that light, Henry’s time in New York can also be seen as a missed opportunity. Though Beckham’s run in Los Angeles vaulted the Galaxy franchise toward a $170 million value, Henry’s impact off the field has been less pronounced. Whereas once Red Bull looked prime to use their new star to finally make a dent in the New York market, four more years on the fringe of the city’s sport scene have cemented their place. With New York City FC set to being play next season, the Red Bulls seemed destined to become the Devils to NYC FC’s more glamorous Rangers.
It’s worth noting that according to Forbes, New York’s franchise value is $114 million, below that of Houston ($125m) and Toronto ($121m), seemingly destined to be usurped by Sporting KC ($108).
Consider the team’s impending change in philosophy – a long-time murmur that became more of a reality after Doug McIntyre’s recent reporting. The Galaxy aren’t the example, Red Bull executive imply. Real Salt Lake and Sporting Kansas City are. Given MLS’s structure, it doesn’t make sense to load up a roster with multiple players like Thierry Henry, Rafa Marquez and Tim Cahill. If other teams are doing it Oakland A’s style, New York can, too.
For some, the timing looks a little too convenient; almost an abdication, given NYC FC’s impending arrival. But the approach also casts light on the duality of the Henry era. On the field, the team has won its first major trophy, last year’s Supporters’ Shield, and was a consistent, if often muted, presence in the East’s playoffs – a testament to Henry’s production. Off the field, the initial boost in brand recognition that accompanied Henry’s arrival and, months earlier, Red Bull Arena’s debut waned. If Henry departs this offseason, he’ll leave behind an organization that looks largely similar in size, prestige, and influence to the franchise he joined four years ago.
With empty seats often dotting the upper levels of Red Bull Arena, the state of the franchise puts Henry’s MLS tenure in perspective. His production on the field is beyond reproach, but the club hasn’t evolved, and while it’s too much to ask that any player carry the same weight as David Beckham, Henry was supposed to have a fraction of that influence. Yet more reserved – witty and sardonic, instead of polished and engaging – Henry’s failed to have that effect, and with the Red Bulls considering a change of course, the Arsenal icon’s time in Harrison is in danger of being reduced to what’s happened on the field.
It was unfair to expect more, but that may be Red Bull’s point. When a player comes with Henry’s hype and compensation, he’s expected to become part of the league’s larger brand. But how many people — how many personalities — are really capable of that kind of transcendence? How many players are able to keep your team in the mind of both the sports and front page editors? To this point in MLS history, there’s only been one.
Henry has given us enough memories on the field, he doesn’t have to justify his contributions off of it, but his time in MLS does provide a couple of lessons. Not only should we treasure the greats the league puts on the field, but we shouldn’t expect them to perform miracles off it.