While New York City basks in the glow of a Super Bowl title and renewed fervor for the Knicks and Rangers, international superstar Thierry Henry quietly goes about his business: scoring goals for Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls.
By John Bolster
It’s been an exciting year to be a sports fan in New York City. The Giants are the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Rangers are bona fide Stanley Cup contenders, and the Knicks’ season has pivoted around one of the more compelling sports stories in recent memory: the spectacular emergence of point guard Jeremy Lin.
Yet there’s an interesting irony folded in with all the excitement in the Big Apple—one not lost on the city’s knowledgeable soccer community: The most accomplished sports star in town, by a comfortable margin, is also the least well-known, locally. He toils in comparative anonymity at Red Bull Arena, just a few miles north of the Giants’ and Jets’ stadium. His name is Thierry Henry, and he’s one of the greatest goal scorers in the history of the world’s game.
Henry turned pro at age 17, and after stints with French side Monaco and Juventus of the Italian Serie A, he transferred to English powerhouse Arsenal in 1999. That’s where Henry blossomed into a world-class player, racing to the top of the club’s all-time scoring list with a Gretzky-esque strike rate of 174 goals in 254 appearances. He led Arsenal to two league championships, three FA Cup titles, and one UEFA Champions League Final, getting nominated for FIFA World Player of the Year twice along the way.
He was also a mainstay on the French national team during this stretch, and won the 1998 World Cup, the 2000 European Championship, and the 2003 Confederations Cup with Les Blues. He became France’s all-time leading scorer in 2007, surpassing the legendary Michel Platini.
In 2007, Henry was transferred to Barcelona (for $31 million), and after three years—and six more trophies—there, the then-32-year-old forward signed with the New York Red Bulls of Major League Soccer. He has continued to find the back of the net in the United States, with 16 goals in 37 appearances for New York, and this past winter he defied any critics who claimed
he’d come to MLS to retire by returning on loan to Arsenal (where there is a statue in his likeness outside the stadium), and scoring three goals in seven appearances for the Gunners.
As he begins his third season in the United States, we spoke to Henry about the Red Bulls’ prospects, the image of MLS abroad, and the Jeremy Lin Experience.
What is something that the European fan should know about Major League Soccer that they might not already know?
Well, the thing is, they don’t show a lot of the MLS games, so it’s difficult for them to have an idea of the league. They simply don’t see it. It did help that Becks [David Beckham] came along, and [Mexico legend and former Barcelona star] Rafael Márquez. But I think the only thing that can help [get MLS noticed in Europe] is if they show more games in Europe. Then people can make up their own minds. I always talk about the league in a positive way. Becks does also, and Rafa, and Landon Donovan. Whenever a guy that plays in MLS talks about the league, it will always be portrayed in a positive way. But at the end of the day, the way you can get fans on board, especially in Europe, is if they see the games.
How much does it help the reputation of MLS to have someone like Donovan go over there on loan and perform very well, as he did this past winter?
I don’t know, to be honest. It does mean that Landon is a good player. But when Landon goes back to Los Angeles, I don’t know if all those Everton fans see the games of the L.A. Galaxy. Not because they don’t want to, but because they’re not on TV in England.
How do you think Tim Ream, your former teammate on the Red Bulls, will do at Bolton in the Premier League?
I think he will do well. I think it was time for him to try to improve his game and go and compete in a different league. And the type of league that he went to, he is going to definitely compete. The strikers are pretty much in your face. Not an easy thing to deal with. But I think it was time for him to go, and I’m happy that he got the chance.
Who are some other young players in the league who have impressed you?
[He’s] not young, but Dwayne De Rosario is a great player. To go back to your first question, that’s the type of player that maybe people in Europe don’t know about. I played with him, and I saw him play with Toronto before, and Houston, and with D.C. He’s a great player, he has a great touch, and he knows where the net is. He understands the game well. But I can talk about De Ro as much as I want right now, about how good he is, but again, because they don’t see the games, fans in Europe don’t see De Ro. It’s just talk for them.
A picture’s worth a thousand words, as they say.
It’s true! You see the guy scoring goals week in and week out, then I don’t have to talk. You understand what I mean? It’s … a done deal. I use De Rosario as an example among a lot of examples that I can take. If I go through the whole league, I can name a lot of good players. You have some great players playing for Seattle, for Salt Lake, for Dallas, for D.C.
What’s the best venue in MLS?
It’s been great everywhere. But when you go and play against Seattle, I mean, I know it’s tough and everything, but the atmosphere there is amazing. I didn’t play there last year because I got suspended [for a red card], but I gotta say, the atmosphere is brilliant. I played there with Barcelona [in a 2009 exhibition], and they were all wear ing the Seattle jersey and being loud. So that was just amazing. But you have a lot of good stadiums now in MLS. That’s the way the league is going forward. That’s an improvement.
Jurgen Klinsmann, the coach of the U.S. national team, said that the off-season for American players is too long. He thinks they need to play 11 months a year. Do you agree? How much recovery time does the body need after a season?
Listen, everything is doable. I used to recover only two weeks. I did ten-years-plus, having only two weeks’ holiday.
My legs are sore just thinking about that.
That was the rhythm of playing. Because if you play at a big club in Europe, [you also play in the] Champions League every time. And every time you have some days off with your club, it’s international duty. End of the season: international duty. So two weeks off, that’s all you have.
How do you take care of your body, to make sure that you bounce back?
Well, when you don’t stop you just don’t stop—your body gets used to it in a way. But as you said, you have to take care of your body, and also be lucky enough to not get injured. I’ve been lucky. That will always stop a player—the progression of a player, trying to be consistent. I was fortunate enough to not get injured, but also I wasn’t the type of guy to go out and party a lot. So maybe that saved me, I don’t know. But that wasn’t me. I was always going back home after a game, thinking about what I didn’t do well, and trying to make sure I was going to perform better in the next game.
Did you have a moment, growing up, when you realized that you could be a professional player?
No, it’s kind of weird—I always say it, and people don’t believe me, but it’s the truth: I didn’t have an agenda when I was young. Obviously you dream as a kid, like any kid, right? When you’re going down playing with your friends, having some fun, you always think that you’re going to be a hell of a player. But everybody does that, you know? Everybody goes like, “Oh, last minute, there I go, scoring the most important goal of my life.” It’s always a dream, but you don’t think it’s going to happen, right?
And for most, it doesn’t happen.
My dad wanted me to be a professional player, and I just wanted him to be happy, and to make him happy. That was it. I didn’t think about it too much. There wasn’t one moment when I said, “Oh, wow, I think I can make it.” I think it was just long, hard work, and commitment and dedication to the game. It wasn’t one day. It was an every-day thing, and that’s why I think I arrived where I am right now.
Are you looking forward to partnering with Kenny Cooper up top this year? Do you know much about Kenny as a player?
Oh, yes, of course I do. He was a pain in the neck when we played against him last year. I remember playing against Portland and I was like, Oh, he’s annoying, you know? He can help us, and that’s the thing you want. You want some depth in your team. And having him around is going to be a massive plus.
With you, Luke Rodgers, Cooper, Juan Agudelo, and Corey Hertzog, you will have more depth at the forward position this year than last.
Yeah, but you want depth everywhere—not only up-front. You want to have a deep, competitive
squad. Because last year we had to deal with the guys going away at the Gold Cup, and we had some injuries and we didn’t deal with it. So I think that’s hopefully going to be different this year.
You’re a fan of the NBA. Now that you’ve been in New York a while, are you a Knicks guy?
Ah, I won’t change. I’m a Spurs guy. My friend plays there—Tony Parker. So I cannot change. But if the Spurs don’t do too well, and they’re out of the competition, then I will support New York, because that’s where I live. But I’m a Spurs fan in the first place. You know, you gotta stay true to your friend, and who you started with.
You can’t jump ship.
No, you can’t jump. Even though what’s happening with the Knicks, it’s amazing right now.
The Jeremy Lin story broke when you were in England. Did you follow it from there?
Oh, well, how could you not? How can you not follow that? Although, if you’re in Europe you don’t see it [as much]. But since I do follow the game, I knew. As a basketball fan, you can’t not know who Jeremy Lin is and what he did this year.
So what do you do in your downtime to relax?
Well, as we’ve been saying, I will watch a basketball game, go to the cinema, go to a restaurant with my friends. Chill out. Just normal stuff, basically. When I’m in town, I take my bicycle and ride around town. Just normal stuff. Nothing too fancy [chuckles].
How often are you recognized in New York City?
Well, a bit, a bit. New York is kind of different, because it’s a very cosmopolitan town. You have a lot of Europeans and Latinos, and people do love their soccer in New York. Even though you have the Yankees and the Knicks and the Giants and the Jets and the Rangers—you have a lot of teams in New York—but people do love their soccer. So yeah, I do get recognized, but not like if I was in Europe.
That must be a relief for you, to some degree.
Oh, yes. It is. Trust me. It is.