Thierry Henry Is Shaping Up as the Best Designated Player in MLS History

New York Red Bulls forward Thierry Henry salutes the crowd after being substituted during the second half of their MLS soccer game in against Toronto FC in Toronto August 21, 2010.  REUTERS/Mike Cassese  (CANADA - Tags: SPORT SOCCER)

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.

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12 Responses to Thierry Henry Is Shaping Up as the Best Designated Player in MLS History

  1. Yusoff says:

    Have to agree on the above…for me King Henry is the stuff of legend…he has shown exemplary behaviour wherever he has gone to…we all know how good he is at Arsenal…and even when at Barca when he was sporadically utilised,Henry kept his head down and keep producing the goods when needed…i have always maintain that Henry will be a success in the MLS and it is always nice to see a football great slowly getting back to his best…

  2. Daniel Feuerstein says:

    And I have to say Eric, it is a joy to see him at Red Bull Arena, training & talking with the press. I have to admit that I am very lucky to have Titi in the NYC tri-state area.

    You will see him end of September. Enjoy the match.

  3. Rick says:

    Yayyyyyyyyyyyy Titiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiii!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    GOOOOOOOOOOOO RBNY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Charles says:

    Obviously he has a LOOONG way to go before he gets to the MLS career that Landon an GBS have had. Probably too old to do so.

    Eric, you seem excited the Henry is playing here….but you want Landon to leave ? Landon needs to seek bigger challenges but Henry doesn’t ?
    Landon needs to want to play with the best in the wold, but Henry doesn’t ?

    I thought your article was a good one, but in the context of what you wrote about Landon in the past it becomes a bit of a joke.

    • Eric Altshule says:

      If you are accusing me of being inconsistent and perhaps hypocritical, I plead guilty with an explanation. As a US soccer fan, I want the best for MLS, the best for the US Men’s National team, and the best for individual American players. Often, those desires are in conflict. What is best for MLS is often not best for the USMNT. What is best for Donovan may not be what is best for MLS. As an American soccer fan, I am often pulled in two directions, and sometimes need to make a choice.
      I still maintain that MLS can thrive as a developer and exporter of American rarified talent and an importer of rarified foreign talent. One day, it may be the type of league where Americans can develop to their fullest potential and great foreign players can come in their prime. That day is not today, and so I will take what I can get. In Thierry Henry, we have the best version of what MLS can get.

      • Charles says:

        Nice post. I don’t agree with wanting Landon to leave of course.
        Thank God, neither does Landon.

        I will stand my belief that until the league in the US is very stong, we will not get the real talent in any sort of depth for the USMNT. Not like people didn’t know they could go to Europe and be sports stars when they watched Soccer Made in Germany all the way through todays EPL version of the same thing.

        It is just not happening enough to get total studs in any sort of numbers. When they can grow up and be paid huge money in the states…then it will happen.

    • WonsanUnited says:

      GBS was about the same age as Henry when he went over to Columbus.

  5. Derrick M says:

    Eric is right about his seeming contrary beliefs.

    We want foreign talen to see MLS as a place where they can go and make good salaries. By bringing in older stars, we hope to increase MLS attendance and TV revenue. Those higher revenues will enable them to hopefully lure younger talent in their prime.

    On the other hand, Landon going to Europe will show young American players that MLS and USMT can lead to the big payoff.

    Hopefully in the future, these two strategies will converge to where MLS is a league that contends for the best talent from all over the world.

  6. JackR says:

    I feel that Henry will be a good addition to the league. He will give the league more exposure which is good for MLS.

  7. Mook says:

    Charles: Henry has already played with the best and won. He’s proved everything. MLS is like the final frontier for him. Can he come here and make an impact and raise the stature of the league? Yes, he can.

  8. Charles says:

    I am mixed on the DPs joining the league. I think that many think that it is needed to make the MLS great. I disagree. If it brings in more money cool.

    Yeah, I am well aware the Henry has proved himself. I am also aware that many think that Landon has not. The second group are idiots.

  9. jim says:

    i think that the best thing for the mls is for european soccer stars like henry to come when there 32 33 34 ending their carreer in the us and teaching young players how to play better and techniques they have acquired during their careers at the top level
    i wouldnt mind seeing zidane play when he was 33 or one day seeing drogba or xavi or messi or any of the elite playing in the us

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