Former Arsenal and France captain Thierry Henry made his debut in the United States last night in front of 20,000 animated New York Red Bulls fans hopeful that his arrival will finally mark the beginning of a winning era for the long-suffering club and its supporters. On a nearly perfect night, in a colorful atmosphere, the stadium lit up when the Red Bulls emerged for the pre-game warm-up and the promise truly proved to be real – Thierry Henry is now an New York based MLS player. The excitement of Henry’s arrival has clearly galvanized the club and infused higher confidence, as evident in the body language of the NYRB players, but this is also a great coup for the league. As Henry proved last night, he still has plenty to offer on the pitch and his ambition to end his career on the up is for real.
Henry’s mere presence has given the NYRB an elevated identity. Already an impressive number of supporters wore Henry shirts, many of them Arsenal supporters sporting Henry’s old shirt. Not everyone came out to greet Henry though, a small but vocal number of Irish fans peppered around the stadium came out to salute Tottenham’s Robbie Keane and to jeer Henry at every opportunity as a “wanking cheat.” But the majority of the crowd came away with the hope and belief that Henry will propel the club to the highest level yet.
Henry only played one half and for the first half hour he looked great. His soccer demeanor is simply more sophisticated than that of his new team-mates. His passing and vision were excellent, he was commanding in the Red Bulls attacking zone. Nevertheless, he fluffed his first ever NYRB scoring opportunity, missing uncharacteristically from eight yards out alone with Spurs’ goal-keeper Cudicini. Eighteen minutes elapsed between Henry’s first chance and his next one, this time around capitalizing on a play created by excellent NYRB midfielder Joel Lindpere and thus making an ideal debut. Instant connection with the fans.
The match itself was a typical friendly affair, with lively attacking action followed by minutes of lateral knock-abouts. Tottenham fielded a surprisingly strong team featuring Nico Krancjar, Garreth Bale, Jermaine Jenas, Luca Modric and Robbie Keane, only the back line unfamiliar. The Red Bulls dominated the first half and should have scored at least three times, Seth Stammler missing an incredible tap in at the far post on one instance. The local team made five changes at the half, including inserting the reserve goalkeeper whose two errors gave Spurs a 2-1 victory. The Red Bulls desperately pushed for a deserved equalizer, but Cudicini and the cross-bar prevented it, slightly spoiling the occasion.
Juan Pablo Angel was absent on the night with an ankle problem, but it will be interesting to see how he and Henry link up. Potentially they form a dynamic partnership, Henry as much a play-maker and passer as he Angel is a pure scorer. If the NYRB can add a solid central midfielder to play along side Lindpere, the future must be considered brighter than ever. It is still a work in progress, but Henry’s arrival catapults the club’s potential and expectations at the same time. Hopefully he will not be swayed too far into the New York night life and will treat this new opportunity as seriously as he did last night.