I remember that night like it was yesterday; in April 2012 I had the privilege of doing a post-game interview with Thierry Henry. As a Gunners fan, I was salivating at the chance to put my microphone in front of this legend. Thanks to my then-MLS Talk media pass and a visit to DC for the Red Bulls, I would be getting the chance of a lifetime.
Except there was one problem. DC United took New York to the woodshed and beat them 4-1. The visitors’ only goal came from a beautiful free-kick by Henry, a classic example of the skill he brought to the league. After the game, Henry showed the other side of his personality. When assembled media were finally allowed to approach him in the locker room and ask questions, he grumpily responded with vague platitudes and barely audible responses. Granted, his team had just been shellacked by a rival but rather than use the media time to challenge his teammates and make public statements to rally the club, he sulked.
This game was ultimately the epitome of Henry’s time in MLS. His talent and skill are unmatched in this league, while David Beckham introduced MLS to skilful play and showed that finesse can beat physical play – Henry’s task was always harder. Beckham played for a team with a brilliant head coach, the right talent around him to exploit his skills, and an ownership group that knew how to work with the league to maximize his positive exposure (as well as meet his demands). Henry dealt with a franchise with a cursed history, one head coach that never seemed to get the league fully, a second head coach still learning how to be a head coach, and roster building that has been less than adequate at times. Yes New York is as big of a media market (and league favorite) as LA, but the Red Bulls are miles from the level of success that LA has seen.
The stats bear out Henry’s great work. In 122 regular season games, he scored 51 goals and had 42 assists. New York made the playoffs every year he was with them and this year even came close to winning the conference. Henry was a two-time MLS Best XI selection and a four-time All Star. He was also for a time the league’s highest-paid player. The goals will long be remembered, as will the memes he inspired. He was the bestselling non-U.S. national jersey in MLS this season.
However, there is also the glaring fact that Beckham, for all his faults, led his team to titles. Henry has none to his name, despite the hype. Yes, New York’s front office has been inconsistent but Henry regularly fails to make the players around him better over the long-term. The list of forwards and midfielders he has angered is long. This is of course when he did play. He was notorious for not playing on turf, whether it was because of injury real or perceived. This season was the only one the supremely talented Red Bulls made the conference finals, and this was probably their best team around Henry.
That Henry I saw in the locker room in 2012 epitomized the Henry MLS had these past four-and-a-half seasons. He is capable of incredible plays and in brief moments making those around him better. He drew eyeballs to the league and lined the pockets of the owners and league officials with the ticket sales and merchandise. But as he leaves the league, the legacy he leaves behind is thin. Fans wearing his jersey will go to games but New York will only have one trophy to show for it, despite the hype.
In the end, despite his failings, Beckham left the league and his teammates better than when he arrived. In the end, because of his failings and not his gifts, Thierry Henry leaves the league and his teammates a little richer but not any better.
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