9:30 am Jul. 31, 20123
When Thierry Henry joined the New York Red Bulls two years ago, it marked a dramatic move forward for the club.
As Henry posed for photographs on the Red Bull Arena pitch, he was an anomaly, a recognizable face around the world (if not yet in New York) and part of a team in Major League Soccer's biggest market.
No championships have followed just yet, but the new normal has been astonishing to behold. The Red Bulls lead the Eastern Conference, even after losing on Saturday to Montreal, 3-1.
Two years later, almost to the day Henry made his debut for the Red Bulls, Red Bull Arena was a hub for international soccer: The team introduced Tim Cahill, the longtime Everton attacking midfielder and Australian international, just in time for an Tuesday night exhibition match against Tottenham Hotspur. Players like Rafael Van Der Vaart, Tom Huddlestone and Brad Friedel trained for Tuesday night's friendly between Tottenham Hotspur and the Red Bulls.
Meanwhile, the Red Bulls are eyeing the possibility of importing the Brazilian star Kaka to replace the injured Mexican star Rafa Marquez.
Cahill isn't joining M.L.S. because his skills have left him. He is 32, and joined the New York Red Bulls instead of accepting one of multiple offers from other Premier League clubs.
And he isn't just joining the Red Bulls because he is a big name. He's actually filling the team's greatest positional need.
At a press conference with Backe at the arena in Harrison, N.J., Cahill already looked and sounded appropriately intense when talking about the prospects of his new team. He discussed off the team's current position and upcoming matchups and their chances of winning the M.L.S. Cup on December 1.
"I've traveled here the last six or eight years with Everton," Cahill said, dressed in a white t-shirt with black stripes on the sleeve, along with a Red Bulls scarf. "Obviously, Landon Donovan's come online twice [with Everton], Tim Howard's a great friend, we've had Marcus Hahnemann and Edson Buddle. The M.L.S. is such an enticing league for players. I've watched a lot of games, spent a lot of time watching football from around the world. The All-Star Game the other night is a perfect example of how technical football is starting to be, how undercredited this league is. I know I need to be in top form."
All of the teammates he cited are Americans who started in M.L.S., then headed to the Premier League.
Cahill was asked by an Australian reporter why he hadn't considered going home to play in the A-League.
"It's simple," Cahill replied. "This is a massive move for me. Moving to the A-League, in all fairness, would have been a step backwards. And it's no disrespect..."
Cahill appeared to fumble briefly for words, not wanting to offend the domestic league of his home country, but continued. "It's that, I want to play at a high level, there's still another World Cup for me to play in, to qualify for with the Australian team," he said. "This is a massive opportunity. So I didn't speak to any A-League club, and it was never in my plans."
Cahill easily could have sounded like almost any American who went overseas for many years, talking about M.L.S.
The longtime Evertonian tends to stay put once he arrives at a new club, having spent eight years with Everton after seven years with Millwall. For Hans Backe, he is something quite new: a real attacking midfielder to give the Red Bulls a final link between midfield and strikers Henry, Kenny Cooper and Sebastian Le Toux.
"Naturally, I think, Tim will go forward," Backe told a smaller group of reporters who gathered around him near the player entrance to Red Bull Arena following the press conference. "He is dangerous in the attacking game as a late runner from midfield. Teemo [Tainio] is more of a holding guy, Dax [McCarty] is more of a holding guy, so the balance, I feel, the balance will be much better."
Cahill never reached the kind of heights Henry did as a player, but he is an elite talent who still has prime years left, and he's choosing to spend them with the Red Bulls.
Which, happily, may say as much about the Red Bulls as it does about Cahill.