French superstar Thierry Henry was introduced to the media as a member of the New York Red Bulls today, and already we’re dealing with the usual, tired arguments. From ESPN television sports talk shows such as PTI and Around the Horn to various sports talk radio outlets to mainstream sports and other writers; we’re hearing all the same questions we heard when David Beckham arrived in Los Angeles in 2007. Will Henry “save soccer” in the United States? Doesn’t the signing prove that the MLS is devolving into a twilight league, fancied by lavishly paid Europeans who want to live the good life for a few more years but can no longer hack it at the highest level? Is it a desperation ploy by a league afraid the mainstream success of the World Cup in this country won’t benefit the domestic game? Yes—questions are being asked. And while there is no doubt that the fireworks and performance by the New York Philharmonic Symphony in Central Park last night were commemorating Bastille Day and not Henry’s arrival in America—it is fitting that the very presence of these questions in so many media outlets is indicative enough that the signing is a big deal. Here’s the rub. With varying degrees of range—from completely the wrong question to a bit off base—all of these questions miss the point. Rather than debating whether soccer needs saving in America, whether the league is desperate for a World Cup bounce, or whether MLS is becoming, as a foolish poll in the usually reliable Guardian suggested, in a classically unveiled, dry British reference to my favorite film, “A Country for Old Men”, let’s try to expose the flaws in each of the above questions, and examine the signing for what it truly is—an excellent acquisition for the Red Bulls as a club and for MLS in general.
While at least stateside no one is going to confuse New York City landing Thierry Henry to the signing of Lebron James—the fact of the matter is it is a huge day for Major League Soccer. What the league itself gets in Henry is without debate one of the greatest strikers of his generation, if not one of the greatest players period. A two-time runner-up for FIFA’s World Player of the Year Award, Henry has achieved nearly all a football player can possibly achieve in his career. He’s led the EPL in goals, won the EPL several times over, won the Champions League, won a Euro and played in four World Cups, winning in 1998. In 2003-04, he scored 30 goals, starring on perhaps the greatest soccer team in the history of English club football, Arsenal’s “Invincibles”, who became (and remain) the first team since Preston North End in 1889 to go through an entire domestic league campaign undefeated. A Carling Cup defeat to Middlesbrough in the semifinal prevented a sweep of all competitions, and later defeats to Manchester United in the FA Cup and Chelsea in the Champions League quarterfinals put a bit of a stain on the team’s legacy, but without question they were remarkable and they were so largely due to Henry. Henry is a year removed from a prominent role in Barcelona’s Spanish League and Champions League titles, and at 32, still has brilliant moments and excellent soccer in him.
Off the field, as I documented previously on this blog here, his humanitarianism is nearly unparalleled and you couldn’t ask for a better role model and representative of the inclusive spirit of soccer, a game that is nearly as politically powerful as it is globally popular. He is, without question, a worldwide icon and despite Irish-American backlash and residual “Hand of Gaul” bitterness, exemplified by this Sean O’Shea “Irish should boycott” piece worthy of its own “jackleg” entry, his signing brings nothing short of a world class player to the United States. So the signing is a big deal, for club, for league, and for the game in this country. So why not leave it at that? The easiest answer seems to be because there can’t be any large soccer news in the United States without asking the same, tired, and increasingly flawed questions. Let’s examine them each in the context of Henry.
The first, “Will Henry Save Soccer in the United States”, while thoroughly exasperating, is becoming my favorite. Soccer fans in the U.S. are well-acquainted with this argument—it’s about as familiar as “Jingle Bells” at Christmastime. Here’s a two-sentence synopsis. Domestic soccer in the United States isn’t relevant. People pay attention to soccer in this country during the World Cup, and the (stereotypically) “white folks” that really, really, really love soccer are the loudest among those openly wondering if the game is “turning the corner” in the country. The answer, to those making the argument, of course, is that soccer isn’t. The league won’t succeed and desperate ploys to sign players like David Beckham and Thierry Henry won’t change that. In the context of Henry, the argument is made in nothing less than headline form by Ask Men soccer writer Rob Fox here. Fox, a Blankcheckster City fan and British import who resides in Montreal, makes all the usual arguments seen above. He then suggests that it is foolish for MLS to waste designated player status spots on past-their-prime players like Henry is error replication, a failed marketing strategy that will see MLS devolve into North American Soccer League Part Deux—a retirement league that transforms the quality of soccer to something less than competitive—more of “sporting exhibition” than a laboratory for player development.
Fox’s argument is easily shoved aside. The blossoming lawyer in me recognizes it as simply relying on a flawed presupposition: that soccer in the United States needs saving. It doesn’t. Ratings for the USA-Ghana and the World Cup Final, which bested Game Seven of David Stern’s NBA, suggest that the “casual” fan base is sustainable. Beyond that, his argument distorts the nature of the league terribly. It also drastically underestimates the level of play Henry is capable of at the age of 32. In fact, there is only one part of Fox’s argument that requires any reasoned retort—and that is the second question being thrown around by writers and talking heads reacting to Henry’s signing: “Is MLS devolving into a twilight/retirement league, destined to fail for all the reasons the North American Soccer League did?”
First, the comparison to the North American Soccer League should stop at pointing out that it was the predecessor to the MLS in genealogy only. That is to say—it historically preceded MLS as the domestic soccer league in this country. Given that the United States has appeared in six consecutive World Cups since the NASL folded, been to a World Cup quarterfinal, a Confederations Cup final, and oh-by-the-way hosted the World Cup, I’d say it is safe to make the argument the game is a bit more advanced in this country today than it was the day the NASL turned out the lights.
Second, this question first begs for an answer to what it presupposes: that MLS is already becoming a “twilight league”, a “Country for Old Men” as The Guardian suggested. Jason Davis, perhaps more exasperated than me with the “Can Henry/insert player here save soccer in the US?” question (He’s been answering it in writing longer!!), provided a devastating response to this argument here. The average age of a MLS player is around 27. Without question, the league is not already a “twilight league.” Nor does it appear to be headed in that direction. Programs such as Generation Adidas are designed, in fact, to avoid that concern ever becoming a reality. A simple look at the US Men’s National Team roster is proof enough that MLS is a developmental league that features young talent, and yes—sprinkles in older, brand names when possible because they are just that—brand names that increase the league’s visibility. That visibility is good—and it is good for young players too. One of the great things about the Bob Bradley era was his awareness of this reality. He understood that increased visibility for MLS was good for US soccer development as a whole. Simply put, the more respected the league, the better the opportunities for younger players would be when the time became right to take their game overseas. Development of players such as Roger Espinoza of Honduras, as well as most recently Americans Stuart Holden, Ricardo Clark and Sacha Kljestan, prove this point. The Red Bulls themselves boast one of the most recent incarnations of the young player nurturing a promising future in MLS in the form of 23 year old defender Tim Ream. As such, the notion that MLS is a twilight league, or is becoming one—is divorced entirely from reality.
Finally, we reach the third question being asked. “Is the Henry signing a desperate ploy by MLS to ensure it receives a bounce from all the positive attention resulting from the World Cup?” This question is the nearest to fair but still misses the point. Does Henry raise the visibility and credibility of the league? Absolutely. Does he add star power? No question. The guy is in Gillette commercials with Tiger Woods and Roger Federer—you don’t get more globally recognizable than Thierry Henry, and that was before the handball. All of that, as Steve Davis writes, gives more casual fans a reason to tune in, and if David Beckham proved anything—they will tune in and they will buy tickets. They’ll also come to appreciate Henry, who I’m certain will immediately get involved off the pitch with various New York City charities and good causes.
None of that is due in any way, however, to “desperation.” It is entirely consistent with the way any other league operates. If you don’t think Lebron James, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade increase the profile of the NBA during what I refer to as the “They might as well be playing in Siberia” months early in the season—you are kidding yourselves. TNT and ESPN might have a few more viewers in November than the not close to 1.0 they are accustomed to. Henry adds star power—and the league can use that. A look at the recent declarations by MLS that American star Landon Donovan is likely not for sale prove that. Will it help ticket sales and the profile of the game in New York City? Sure. Coupled with the new arena, the game could thrive in New York City. But in that respect it is just like any franchise starved for a winner and a reason to generate fan optimism. If you don’t believe that—you haven’t paid attention to Steven Strasburg’s first few starts with the Nationals, and you probably should pay attention. But the signing isn’t desperate. It is a shrewd business choice.
It also isn’t David Beckham all over again. At 32, Henry has lost a bit of his formerly terrifying pace. He fell out of favor at Barca this year and certainly we all know what happened to France. That said, he is only a year removed from a glowing role with Barca in their run to league cup, league and Champions League titles, and he will enter MLS two years younger than Juan Pablo Angel, who has tallied 54 goals in his thirties in his time with the Red Bulls. What’s more—the move makes good soccer sense. Henry immediately makes the Red Bulls better, at a time when they’ve hit the skids and struggled to score goals. His pace will still trouble most MLS defenses, and his finishing hasn’t escaped him. He’ll give the Red Bulls a feared striker tandem and a much more complex attack, both positives for side that is stout defensively. Additionally, unlike David Beckham, who arrived to MLS a bit worn out from his run with Real Madrid, Henry should be fresh and able to impact play immediately. If he does do that—my guess is folks will notice, and the impact for the league will be positive, at a time when yes—the league is riding the good feeling wave of post-World Cup sentiment. Best of all, Henry’s success will come on the biggest stage in American sport: New York City. Soccer doesn’t need saving, but you know what Old Blue Eyes said—“If I can make it there…I’ll make it anywhere…”