11:39 pm Apr. 9, 2012
Believe it or not, the New York Red Bulls have just completed what may be the most dominant three-week run of any team in the history of Major League Soccer.
This state of affairs is largely the doing of Thierry Henry, who was named M.L.S. Player of the Week for a third consecutive week on Monday. No player has ever earned that honor three straight times.
Henry, formerly of Arsenal and Barcelona, scored twice in New York's 4-1 destruction of the Columbus Crew in Columbus on Saturday, a week after a hat trick against Montreal, and he now leads the league in goals with seven. His teammate, Kenny Cooper, is right behind him with six.
This followed a 5-2 victory over the Montreal Impact the week before, which itself was quite similar to the 4-1 win over the Colorado Rapids the week before that. New York's three straight wins by three goals or more is another M.L.S. first.
This unexpected burst of offensive firepower and dominance has come from a team that lost its first two matches, scoring just one goal while showing absolutely no signs of breaking out.
So what has changed?
Well, it starts with an in-form Henry.
Major League Soccer (particularly the Red Bulls and their equally unsuccessful predecessor franchise, the Metrostars) has a long history of importing stars in the hope that they will provide excellent performance, lifting the rest of the league in the process. Too often, these players have been uncommitted—such as Henry's expensive teammate, Rafa Marquez—or past their primes, and playing out the string in the American league.
But in Henry, New York has a player as competitive as ever, and one still skilled enough to feature for Arsenal in his spare time. (In fact, his spell in North London seems to have put him in midseason form early on.)
Still, Henry was forced to track back in the first two matches, greatly limiting his finishing opportunities. Then along came Kenny Cooper, a one-time Best XI in M.L.S., healthy again, and extremely difficult for any defense to handle. Asked to limit one or the other, three successive defenses failed to slow either player.
When that defense is from the expansion Montreal Impact, within the friendly confines of Red Bull Arena, a Henry-Cooper scoring explosion means one thing. When it happens in Columbus, against a Crew team that had allowed one goal all season, it means quite another.
So is this freakish turn of events for real? It's entirely too soon to tell. For one thing, it is built on Cooper, who has fought injury problems throughout the past several years, and Henry, who has battled injuries of his own in New York and, prior to that, for Barcelona. An absence from either would allow defenses to resume focusing on the other.
There isn't much in the way of a fallback plan up front, either. Prodigy Juan Agudelo is out with a knee injury, and last year's Henry-partner of choice, Luke Rodgers, was denied a visa to return to the country. So the dropoff from either Henry or Cooper to untested Jhonny Arteaga, Jose Angulo or Corey Hertzog would be steep.
And if New York isn't scoring 4-5 goals per match, greater pressure will be put on the rookie goaltender, Ryan Meara, and the team's center backs. Markus Holgersson, signed this winter to give more size to the position, has been error-prone, while Wilman Conde has been dominant when he plays, but healthy enough to only play two of five matches so far. And one of the most valuable Red Bulls over the past two seasons, midfielder Joel Lindpere, has seen his form dip so dramatically that coach Hans Backe benched him on Sunday.
Still, there are far worse things than building around a pair of attackers so strong that they might end up being each other's biggest rivals for the league's Golden Boot award. Their only outside threat at the moment is Chris Wondolowski of San Jose, and the Earthquakes visit New York on Saturday night.
In an effort to boost attendance beyond the 13,415 fans they drew against Montreal on a cold Saturday back on March 31, the Red Bulls will be giving out 10,000 Thierry Henry posters commemorating his hat trick against the Impact. They hope those modest souvenirs will lead to greater awareness that their star, the biggest name M.L.S. has brought in other than David Beckham, is playing as well as anyone in this league ever has.