And now Thierry Henry rides the PATH

and-now-thierry-henry-rides-path
A fine welcome. (Howard Megdal)
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One nice thing about the fact that American club soccer has never achieved a mass following is the intimacy.

So it was possible, for example, that on exiting the Harrison PATH parking garage to begin walking toward the Red Bull Arena for Thierry Henry’s debut for the New York Red Bulls, a small knot of fans and I were unexpectedly joined by … Thierry Henry.

It’s not like he’s just any player, either. He’s a genuine, world-class star, a Frenchman worshiped for years by Arsenal fans in North London, and who played most recently for the world-beaters at Barcelona.

Now, he’s also the latest maybe-savior of Major League Soccer’s New York franchise, which has been tragically mediocre more or less since the league’s inception 17 years ago, and therefore the latest maybe-savior of U.S. soccer, whose executives would very much like to produce a team in America’s biggest media market that doesn’t stink.

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And there he was, in New Jersey, strolling toward the game with his friend, New York Knicks forward Ronny Turiaf. He had taken the train.

"It was the quickest way to come to the game," Henry said in a press conference following what turned out to be 2-1 exhibition-tournament loss to Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal’s detested London rival. "I was on the train with my friends, with all the fans. It was quite an experience. It was the quickest way to come, so that's how I came. It was cool."

A crowd of only about 20 had gathered around him as he exited the Harrison station. Henry and Turiaf eventually waded through a larger crowd before making a left turn and walking a block or so to the near side of the stadium, but pandemonium did not ensue. Even the fans walking stride-for-stride with Henry and Turiaf didn’t engage them.

As the group neared the arena, I overheard a woman ask her male companion, “Why don’t you go talk to him?”

He responded, “I worshipped him from afar in the Premier League, and I’ll do the same here.”

The question is whether Henry can live up to being worshipped here. He began answering the question affirmatively last night against British Premier League side Tottenham Hotspur, scoring a goal and looking generally impressive.

But Henry, a classy goal-scorer who, at his best, makes the game look very easy, is coming off an unusual string of career lowlights. There was the un-penalized hand ball against Ireland that allowed France to qualify for the World Cup—an uncharacteristic act of villainy by a fair player—and then a disastrous performance in South Africa by the French side. And Henry had a hard time staying healthy and scoring goals for his most recent club team, Barcelona.

The good news, though, is that Henry is only 32—not young, but certainly not washed up, either. This is kind of a key thing, given the history of big-name imports brought in to play here, in the pathetically poor soccer environment of Giants Stadium (where the Red Bulls, previously the MetroStars, played until the move to a smaller, more attractive soccer-only stadium this year).

Italian striker Roberto Donadoni played for the Metrostars, but was bored by the rudimentary state of things—he went back to Italy and said that the game here was a farce. Former Juventus defender Nicola Caricola scored an own-goal in the team’s very first home game, a 1-0 loss. German star Lothar Matthaus played in just 16 games after a much-trumpeted acquisition back in 2000.

Henry seems to be aware of this, and also seems determined to refute the idea that the only top-flight players willing to come to M.L.S. are ones without the top-flight ability anymore. (Even David Beckham, who played well here for the Los Angeles Galaxy while he was healthy, ended up using his time here as a rehab stint to land harder-to-come-by roster berths at AC Milan and for England.) He’s earned early raves for his intensity in training during his short time here, and for his engagement with the other players, and that work was immediately evident on the field.

Last night, he had 45 minutes to impress the 20,000-odd fans.

He brought his talent to bear upon the game almost immediately. Within the first few minutes, he’d caught the crowd’s imagination with a slick back-pass and elegant crosses. His first shot on goal, a miss, came after he ghosted past a defender around the six-yard-line. Near the 12-minute mark, he sent a neat pass to his teammate Macoumba Kandji, who wasn’t able to convert it into a goal.

Spurs, one of the better English teams, coming off a particularly strong last season, quickly began to dominate possession of the ball, but in the 25th minute, Henry took advantage of Joel Lindpere’s low cross from the left side, sliding in front the goal to tuck it away.

That was a sort of it for Henry. He’s clearly not in fighting shape, and visibly slowed by the 35-minute mark, and was lifted, as planned, at halftime.

Encouragingly, the crowd did not leave en masse at the break.

Andy Binfield and his son Josh had driven from Buffalo Thursday morning to attend the game. But both Binfields were Spurs fans; indeed, Henry, the former Arsenal star, was a bête noire.

“There’s only one league for us,” said the older Binfield.

The Binfields had moved from London 10 years ago—for them, soccer has been Premier League Saturday mornings on Fox Soccer Channel, not Major League Soccer.

“But Henry coming is only a good thing for M.L.S.,” Binfield continued. “I can certainly see a lot of enthusiasm developing here, especially with the young kids.”

In the case of Larry Marra and his son Scott, the customary path of the sports fan—parent introduces the game to child—had been reversed.

Larry Marra hadn’t been a soccer fan until he’d begun watching Scott play. Soon after, he began coaching Scott, now 14. This season, they became Red Bulls season-ticket holders. “Together, we’ve grown up with soccer for the past eight years,” Marra said. “And we’ve grown to where we are now.”

Henry has signed a multi-year contract with the Red Bulls, and, maybe crucially, his commitment has coincided with, if not helped spur, an uptick in fan interest: attendance at the new stadium is up 42 percent over attendance at Giants Stadium.

Anthony Beers of Hamilton, NJ, waiting on line for empanadas just after halftime, said he’s been “coming to Red Bulls games all season, and some last year—and we’ve been watching them grow.”

About Henry, Beers said, “He looked good. He looks like he’s still got it.”

That assessment was shared by Spurs manager Harry Redknapp, who said in a press conference following the game, “The young guy up-front first half, Henry, looks like he has a good future,” drawing laughs from the reporters. More seriously, he added, "He was fantastic. He's a different class."