By James Mundia
A few weeks before the World Cup, I was forwarded an email link detailing the speculation behind an Henry move to the Red Bulls. My initial reaction was an eye-roll and a sigh. Not another washed up player coming to the MLS for a cash and publicity grab, hoping to reap rewards from his popularity with die-hard stateside fans and the novelty he present to casual soccer observers.
After the Beckham debacle (and it was nothing less than that), I was pretty much done with thinking that a foreign star of years past was what the MLS needed to enter the upper-level of American professional sports.
There are factors in place, however, that make this particular situation a little more promising.
Unlike the other aging stars who came to the MLS to retire, Henry (photo www.thestar.com) is still in relatively good form with 30 goals in the last two seasons at Barca (though most of those were in the 08-09 season). Consider how quickly the excitement faded for Stoichkov, Matthäus (once the Euro and FIFA player of the year), and Beckham.
The quick loss of interest in the aforementioned players might be explained by their positioning on the field as well. Beckham and Stoichcov were wide-side, attacking midfielders, while Matthaus was more of a sweeper. Even in this hybrid era of of full-steam-ahead, “everybody attacks” soccer, there wasn’t as much to speak of in terms of excitement for the trio in their MLS stints.
Henry will fulfill a role that MLS teams don’t always have the luxury of claiming, natural chance creation and goal scoring. Anybody who has watched the MLS from its genesis to now will agree that the games are more watchable as the talent has increased. Defenders don’t give away easy goals, and the middle of the park is tight and organized, across the board. But the MLS hasn’t really been lit up with consistent 20+ goal scorers, despite the striker talent the league has seen in the past. Infact, in the leagues history, only 5 players have gone over the 20 goal mark.
Now consider Henry, who won the Premier League’s Golden Boot four times (including three in a row from the 2003 to 2007). What the MLS needs (read: not necessarily American soccer, more on that in a post to follow) is a player that can electrify fans consistently.
As a country, we are at a point where there is less appreciation of well executed triangle play in the midfield (think of the applause following these moments in a Premiership match), or a nicely cut out ball by a defender. We need goals.
There’s a reason why SportsCenter has historically stayed away from showing the league much love, not much happens that is highlight worthy!
Imagine Henry, who still possesses some blazing speed, going five or six games in a row with a goal for the Red Bulls and SportsCenter bingeing on tracking his every move during said streak. And believe me, Henry is the kind of player who can do it. Despite his relatively advanced age, he’ll still scare quite a few defenders in one to one confrontations. Nobody, regardless of talent, looks forward to having that guy run at them all day.
In a way, this is another chance for Henry to prove his mastery of the sport, coming into a situation where he’ll be expected to produce immediately, against solid competition, all while living in the pressure cooker that is the New York sports world.
I’ve been let down by the hype surrounding a foreign star coming to the league before, but its safe to say I have a much better feeling about this one.
James Mundia is a soccer player, enthusiast, and coach based in Washington, DC. You can read his blog at jmundia.wordpress.com