Henry isn't David Beckham, take two
From an American standpoint, it's not quite LeBron James. From an international standpoint, it's bigger. But either way, the New York metropolitan area has managed to land at least one international sporting superstar this summer.
Confirmation that French striker Thierry Henry has joined the Red Bulls will have a tremendous impact on soccer in a region where the sport has struggled for relevance since the MetroStars kicked off along with MLS in 1996. The French star is a worldwide icon, having represented his country at four World Cups and starring in the English Premier League for Arsenal and in La Liga for Barcelona for more than a decade.
Without question, Henry will bring more visibility to the league at home and abroad. But this move isn't some marketing ploy. It's more about on-the-field production than off-the-field buzz. David Beckham, take two, this is not.
At 32, Henry is slightly past his prime. A few lost steps can mean a lot at the highest level to a player who relied heavily on his terrifying pace to place himself among the all-time great strikers of the English game. Henry poured in the goals for Arsenal throughout the last decade and still places third on the Premier League all-time scoring list.
But unlike Beckham, who arrived in L.A. after a brief but sterling resurgence at Real Madrid, Henry makes the trip across the Atlantic at what could be considered a career low. He featured rarely this year for Barcelona, and the World Cup was an unmitigated disaster for France.
Coming to America could help kick-start Henry's game again. The Frenchman's form may not compare to that of his prime EPL years, but MLS defenses, despite significant improvement over the years, aren't as strong as those in Spain and England.
Henry's new Red Bulls teammate Juan Pablo Angel has described Henry as one of the best players of their generation. Like Angel, who came to MLS from the EPL, Henry will immediately become one of the best players in the league.
For comparison, since arriving in MLS four seasons ago, Angel has bagged 54 goals in 87 games. Even at 34 years of age, he's still considered one of the league's most deadly strikers. And for all that Angel accomplished in Europe before his MLS move, Henry's track record is far superior.
New York has relied heavily on Angel in attack this year, with the Colombian scoring nine of its 18 goals. Henry not only assures the Red Bulls of another option but brings an extra level of complexity for opposing defenses to worry about. The pair will immediately be among the most feared strike tandems in the league, with only L.A.'s all-star American front line of Landon Donovan and Edson Buddle even coming close.
Henry's arrival comes just in time for the Red Bulls. After a quick start, the club finds itself in second place, two points behind the Columbus Crew. With Henry's addition, the Red Bulls become the favorites to win the conference as well as rival the Galaxy as the top team in MLS.
For the Red Bulls and the league, both on and off the field, much now depends on Henry. Just as he clearly has the skills to handle the soccer side, there are signs his persona may be a good match for the team and the intense media spotlight that is the New York market. Henry, after all, has proven he can handle touchy situations. After the French World Cup debacle, for instance, Henry was the man called to meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy to explain the disaster. It symbolized Henry's renowned status in French culture and society.
Now, Henry brings that larger than life status to the Big Apple. Whether New Yorkers appreciate Henry's iconic status is, in the end, less relevant than the results he produces on the pitch.
Henry should hit the field running. Unlike other Europe-based stars who labored through long club seasons after the World Cup, Henry starts play next week with fresh legs and a burning desire to prove himself once again. He's come to New York to score goals -- sooner rather than later.
Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio and now works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at email@example.com.