With a calm hand gesture, Thierry Henry waved away his teammate. This was his moment. The French striker had just delicately controlled a dropping ball before volleying it into the bottom corner. ‘Absolutely magnificent’ cried Arlo White on the television broadcast – and he was right.
Possessing a flare that no one else on the pitch that day could convincingly pull off, for Henry DP may as well have stood for ‘Difference-making Player’ rather than ‘Designated’.
Spending the final four years of his professional career in Major League Soccer, he never lifted an MLS Cup, but he still provided a multitude of memories.
There was his nonchalant resting on the goal-post celebration - known as ‘Henrying - there were ridiculous goals, spats with opponents, he brought pageantry and a maverick approach to the Big Apple.
Henry was a showman, but this was New York, where even a seasoned performer can be booed off at the Apollo Theatre. He didn’t care though, in fact he revelled in it at times. He embraced the culture and often tapped into it at source.
Against New York Red Bull’s fierce rivals D.C. United, he actively encouraged the hate from home supporters. “Boo again! Come on, boo again!” He cried, gesturing for the Screaming Eagles to get louder. To extract an emotion was Henry’s intention. It didn’t have to be adulation, he received enough of that in North London where he had his own statue. He was happy to play the villain if that’s what they wanted him to be.
At first he seemed bemused by the lack of fanfare, a void of excitement that threatened to turn toxic early into his Red Bulls career. He had arrived in the wake of Juan Pablo Angel’s departure, a notable one given how regularly the Colombian hit the back of the net. Henry was expected to not only match that level but raise it. Yet after a shock loss to the San Jose Earthquakes in 2011, his detractors began questioning his commitment.
He was just another veteran looking for a paycheque – enticed by the chance to live in New York rather than play with their soccer team. Then there was a moment. A deep cross by his strike partner Luke Rodgers, an angled header by Henry. The net rippled.
Yet instead of using it as an olive branch to supporters he stood there, chest out, an alpha male – his body language screamed ‘boo again’.
He tapped the name on the back of his shirt. This was not a moment for him to be vulnerable and climb inside his shell, rather one to remind them of just who he was and where he had been. It was the blossoming of a bond that still holds strong today despite his departure – in part due to one of his biggest achievements; silverware.
‘That’s so Metro’ is a phrase in U.S. Soccer culture that is seen as a by-word for self inflicted Red Bull failure. It’s an insult, a hashtag and something they’ve often struggled to shake. It was ubiquitous on social media when they managed to lose a play-off game against a 10 man D.C United at home 1-0 — missing a penalty with the scores tied at 0-0.
In 2013 it seemed that book was to gain another chapter. The club needed a win to secure their first every trophy – the Supporters’ Shield. Falling behind at home to the Chicago Fire, the goalscorer was none other than former Red Bull Mike Magee. That’s so Metro.
Only that’s not how Thierry Henry chose to operate. 23 minutes in, he grabbed a hold of the prepared script and tore it right down the middle. Collecting a pass from Pegy Llyundula on his chest, he took one look before volleying it into the top corner past a stationary Sean Johnson.
Arms outstretched, he could have been forgiven for evoking the spirit of Marco Tardelli and racing around the pitch – although that was never his style. He was still nonchalant, this was what he did.
Henry raised the expectations of Red Bulls fans. With him in the side they believed a moment of magic could be conjured from a sprig of opportunity.
By the end of his stay he was fully ingrained in the culture of not just New York but also MLS. Right down to his captains armband, an homage to the colours of the Red Bulls former identity – the New York/New Jersey Metrostars.
His celebration against the Houston Dynamo became a trending topic - #Henrying. He wasn’t perfect though. As Graham Parker recalls in a piece for ESPN after he retired. “Henry could be garrulous and opinionated postgame, and he could be moody and taciturn. You never knew which version would show up.”
The truth is he was never that interested in the ‘narrative’ which we journalists and fans are now so obsessed with: “You guys in the press, after the game it’s all ‘story, story...’, and I’m in a different place thinking, ‘technical, technical...’” he once told Parker after a game. It was true. He was the leading man in the first few chapters of the story.
It wasn’t just with the media he was sometimes withdrawn. On the pitch he changed tactically, some may even say evolved. The pace was diminished, he was no longer the sprightly former winger that ran through defenders like they were cones at London Colney. While he thrust himself into the culture, on the pitch he sat deeper, watching, waiting. He preferred to create for the likes of Luke Rodgers and more recently Bradley Wright-Phillips. He gave light to the artistry in creating a goal, sliding a pass and timing a run.
It was unfortunate that for Henry, he was never handed the consistency of teammates that someone like David Beckham received. It is telling that of all the teams he admired in the league, Real Salt Lake was his favourite – the most together team and unit in MLS.
New York Red Bulls were often lurching from ideology to ideology. The fact he was one of their longest serving players after only two years spoke volumes of the constant change – consistently inconsistent.
However that did not diminish his overall impact on U.S. Soccer. As an Englishman watching from some 5,000 miles away, staying up late on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, he made it enjoyable. He added spectacle to proceedings without it ever feeling fake.
Like any great player he made those around him better, and when the engine wouldn’t start, he provided the spark, the moment of magic.
More importantly than all that however, he personified the culture he represented. He has always spoken of his love for New York and the desire to live in the city. Moving to a team that had only recently rebranded, trying to create a culture and an image based around a team named after a European energy drink is hard.
In typical Henry fashion though, he didn’t try. Instead, he did his thing and let the walls be built around him. Thus when you ask yourself what Henry’s impact was on MLS and U.S. Soccer it’s just that, he wrote a chapter, built a pillar of a culture and helped raise the game. A polarising character, he got people talking about soccer, which in many ways is exactly what he was supposed to do.