Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Thierry Henry to RBNY: Signed, Sealed and Delivered?

If it seems to weary Red Bulls fans that the Thierry Henry to New York chatter has been going on for years and years, that's because it has.  There had been talk about the Frenchman's love for the Big Apple for even before he left Arsenal for Barcelona, but the rumor that he might be coming to New York and really took off in earnest in 2008, when he participated in Steve Nash's charity soccer game in Manhattan with Claudio Reyna, Robbie Fowler, Steve McManaman and several NBA stars.  At the time, Reyna was still the Red Bulls' marquee designated player.  Hobbled by injuries, he would retire less than a month after the event.  It was hard to envision Henry playing on the terrible surface at Giants Stadium beside guys like Juan Pietravallo and Jorge Rojas, but with construction finally beginning in Harrison, an eventual marriage between RBNY and TH14 didn't seem so far-fetched.

Now, after two respectable seasons and one disappointing season at the Nou Camp, it appears all but certain that the Red Bulls finally have their man.  SI's Ben Lyttleton broke the news yesterday that Titi had come to an agreement with MLS and that the only remaining hurdle was the issue of compensation to Barcelona for the final year of his contract.  This morning, Barcelona Vice President Rafael Yuste added additional fuel to the fire when he admitted that Henry, MLS and the Blaugrana were putting finishing touches on a deal that would allow the Frenchman to seal a move to MLS following the World Cup.  For his part, Henry has talked down news of a deal as he concentrates on France's World Cup preparations, but reading between the lines this has all the hallmarks of a done deal.

The big unknown is how much of an impact Henry will have - both on and off the pitch.  Will it be Beckham Mania part two or will the net effect on MLS and the Red Bulls be more modest?  Will he help revive the Red Bulls moribund attack and spur Juan Pablo Angel, or will the club continue to struggle without a strong creative presence in midfield?  While I have my doubts about the second question, I feel pretty confident in predicting that TH14 will put more butts in seats at Red Bull Arena, at least enough to drive average attendance above 20,000. 

Already you are seeing reports about Henry appearing in mainstream media and on newspapers' back pages in the Tri-State Area.  For a sport, a team and a league that has been largely ignored by New York hometown press, that's pretty huge.  I've also been receiving numerous messages and e-mails from people about Henry from casual MLS fans and know at least one or two Arsenal supporters who have not yet been out to Red Bull Arena but would make the trip to see one of their idols.  Factor in what you would expect to be an out and out ad blitz once Henry arrives and the near-term impact could be huge. Maybe not Cosmos level huge, but certainly bigger than anything we've seen in the area since the arrival of MLS in 1996.

As someone who would turn out to games if we had a team of Juan Pietravallos and Leo Krupniks (wait, I already did that!) it's the longer term, on the field impact I'm more concerned about.  Without a strong presence in midfield to provide service to Henry and Angel, and attack that looks great on paper could seriously disappoint.  And nothing will kill the early buzz about Henry faster than a home losing streak.  While it's true that New Yorkers love to embrace big stars, they also love winning.  Roll a loser out there and you'll see fans run for the hills.  Just ask the Mets.  That's why I hope that the Red Bulls are doing everything in their power to add Ze Roberto or someone of his qualities who has an eye for the killer pass.  Without that midfield threat (and Joel Lindpere, for all his hard work and tenacity, is not the man), the Henry love-in could be over very quickly.

Until Henry arrives, of course, Hans Backe needs to find a way to tease some goals out of an attack that has dried up after a prolific pre-season.  Columbus comes to town on Thursday, and then the Red Bulls visit a struggling New England Revolution a week from Saturday, with a US Open Cup qualifying game against Colorado sandwiched in between.  If the Red Bulls can take points from their Eastern Conference foes, fight their way to the US Open Cup proper, and get through early June still atop the Eastern Conference, they should have a full head of steam when Henry arrives from South Africa for his first press conference.
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