For the Red Bulls, it’s Thierry Henry or bust

Thierry Henry celebrates his goal. (Kick TV)
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It's not clear yet what the New York Red Bulls, a playoff team intent upon becoming a championship team, are trying to do this offseason.

First, there was a massive roster purge, with the team's new director Gerard Houllier overseeing the carnage.

Next came a move to retain gifted young players Brandon Barklage and Connor Lade, suggesting the defense could be anchored by a couple of young Americans, followed by the uncertainty-inducing acquisition of Jamison Olave from Real Salt Lake and Kosuke Kimura from Portland.

They acquired forward Fabian Espindola, suggesting they believe they needed help up top, but are actively shopping Kenny Cooper, a more productive forward than Espindola who just scored 18 goals for the Red Bulls.

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So here's what we know: The Red Bulls are building, for good or ill, around Thierry Henry.

Henry is the team's best player, its most important player, and clearly the center of the team's plans. He is M.L.S.'s highest-paid player, and he has been dominant at times for the Red Bulls, who have made the playoffs in each of his three seasons.

So while retaining Barklage and Lade is a smart move, and gives the Red Bulls depth in defense, they clearly want defenders who could be relied upon to win now, while Henry is still in good form.

Olave is really just a step up from Wilman Conde, a similarly gifted player who took a step back due to physical limitations.

And Kimura, who also succeeded in M.L.S. previously, is a perfectly reasonable choice in defense, too. Acquiring him required giving up the rights to Bryan Gallego, a collegiate star who could become an elite defender.

But Gallego needs a few years. Henry turned 35 in August. There's no time in the Henry plan to wait for Gallego.

Similarly, no team in the abstract would prefer Espindola to Cooper. But while Henry seemed impatient all season with Cooper's big-man style, Espindola's pace complements Henry's skills more effectively. Espindola is the second striker in the Henry plan, not Cooper.

There are two problems with this plan, of course. One is that if Henry gets hurt, the Red Bulls are sunk. Employ Cooper, and they have a reliable fallback scorer. Espindola, on the other hand, can't carry an offense.

The other problem is that once Henry goes, the team will need to basically start over. If that happens at the end of his contract after next season, that means the team will have bet a whole lot on a pretty tiny window.

Then again, no previous teams in M.L.S. have ever had the good fortune of employing a Thierry Henry. The Red Bulls are doing all they can to maximize that advantage while they still have it, future be damned.