Wednesday, July 14, 2010

History has a way of repeating itself

You will hear this phrase repeated throughout soccer and sports websites in the next two days, “The worst kept secret in soccer has been revealed, Thierry Henry is joining Red Bull New York of the MLS.” RBNY posted it this morning on their website that the signing was official and his first game would be on Thursday July 22nd in the opening match of the Barclays New York Football Challenge against EPL powerhouse Tottenham. For those heading to Harrison for the weekend, this is a pleasant but expected addition to the international atmosphere of the tourney’s inaugural year.

Henry coming stateside has been all but official for over 3 months now, and frankly, I like what the Red Bulls have done to tease the addition of their second designated player. The whole, “100 rumors, 50 names, 1 star” campaign has been fun to follow with great video clips of an equipment guy feverishly printing out new jerseys and one empty space in the locker room reserved for the “unknown” player. Personally I was hoping for a 1 hour special on Fox Soccer Channel called “Thierry Henry: The Decision”, but I think the way this whole signing was approached has been good for moving the Red Bull product forward.

Of course, there is one thing that Henry and Erik Soler (RBNY GM) didn’t plan on… the Red Bulls are really good this year. After being the perennial basement dwellers of the conference, RBNY is currently in second place, two points back of the Columbus Crew in the Eastern Conference. So what does Henry bring to the table that will solidify New York’s position in US soccer culture? There are two reasons, scoring and diversity.

Although the Red Bulls are winning matches, their scoring is more typical of a team in the middle of the pack with a goal differential (GD) of +1. Just to put it in comparison, the Crew, Galaxy, an RSL (all with better records) have GD of +8, +18, and +17, respectively. Henry is not a midfield, past his prime setup guy like Beckham or Ljungberg, he is only a season removed from scoring 26 goals for Barcelona as the team won no less than 6 major championships in 2008-09. Goals and championships are something that have been in short supply in NYC since the days of the Cosmos; expect Henry to make an immediate impact in these areas starting day one.

Perhaps the biggest positive in Henry’s move stateside is that he is a tremendous ambassador to the game of soccer. He hasn’t been shy in the last two seasons about his love for America, specifically NYC, and how he had dreams of playing in the Big Apple at some point. I hope someone explained to No. 14 that technically he would be playing in Harrison and not under the bright lights of Manhattan, but even the Giants and Jets play in the swamps, right? All kidding aside, the single biggest factor in this move is that Henry will touch upon a variety of demographics. The French from his days on the national team winning the world cup in 1998, The Brits from his 8 years at Arsenal, and maybe even the Spanish for his 3 years at Barca. However, the key demographic will be the African-American population in the United States. With Mr. James giving the double middle finger to the Knicks and Nets, the population of the metroplex is looking for a new hero; in steps Henry. Beckham was just another big name, Anglo-European, appealing to the same audience that other European players in the states have always addressed. Henry will be able to bridge the gap between this key audience in northern NJ and beyond better than any other potential designated player. Don’t think it can happen? It already has in the United States, and in New York. One only has to look at Pele with the aforementioned New York Cosmos, selling out the Meadowlands for every match to see how one player can speak to a demographic. Just look at old pictures of the crowd from those matches and you will see it looked more like Rucker Park and less like Old Trafford Park (circa 1977 of course). MLS is trying to tap into an audience which has been primarily occupied by watching the NBA and NFL, so it will be an uphill battle. However, history has a way of repeating itself, and if it doesn’t just give it time and it will.

Bonjour Monsieur Henry, Bonne chance!

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