As I made my way out of a packed Rio Tinto Stadium I was both impressed by the game I had seen, but similarly disappointed at the performance of the hero I had come to see. The contest between two of Major League Soccer’s power teams, Real Salt Lake and the New York Red Bulls, had been played at a frantic pace, made more impressive thanks to the near unbearable heat the players were forced to contest with. The quality of the football was at a much higher standard than I had expected, with the technically superior Real Salt Lake running out clear 3-0 winners on the night. Due to my wife’s allegiance to Utah I had been at the game to cheer on Real, but the player I had specifically come to watch was actually on the opposing side.
Thierry Henry is a true legend of the game, a winner in every sense of the word, with team and individual honors any footballer would be envious of. Following his summer transfer from Barcelona to New York, Henry was leading the line for the Red Bulls, choosing to join the ever-improving MLS in favour of a higher profile return to England or France. I had chosen to attend this particular game whilst in America due to the fact that Henry would be on display. In fact even the tickets made a big deal of Henry’s arrival, advertising the game as Real Salt Lake versus New York Red Bulls featuring Thierry Henry. It made me wonder weather I could ask for my money back if Henry didn’t actually make an appearance and following the game that thought in particular was still running through my mind. Henry was a spectator for the majority of the game and on the rare occasions he took possession of the ball he looked labored, clumsy and completely out of sorts. I’m not an Arsenal fan in any way, in fact I am a fan of an English team which was tormented by Henry during his legendary years in the Premier League, but I am a fan of football. Henry just didn’t seem to have the same passion and desire which had epitomized him during his time in Europe. If someone would have told me that Henry would return to the English Premier League as I walked out of the Rio Tinto Stadium that day I wouldn’t have laughed, but I would have seriously questioned what, if any, impact he could make.
Fast forward five months to a bitterly cold and breezy Emirates Stadium where Arsenal were about to being their FA Cup campaign with a tough tie against Championship contenders Leeds United. Late into the second half the game appeared to be heading to a goalless draw and a tricky reply at Elland Road when the Arsenal fans gave out the biggest cheer of the evening. The eruption of applause arrived as the fans caught sight of their new number 12 – the returning legend Thierry Henry was preparing to enter the action. What happened next must have felt like a dream for Henry, starting his six week loan spell at Arsenal from New York by scoring the winning goal and ensuring that the team progressed to the next round of the competition. But could this dream start have pushed too much pressure on Henry? I couldn’t help but recall the Henry I had watched in America and wonder how he would adapt when it came time to play in the Premier League.
Along with many other football fans, critics and commentators I felt that Arsenal had done a good piece of business recruiting Henry during the MLS off season to supplement a strike force left bare by the Africa Cup of Nations. My only concern was how Henry would adapt to being back in the Premier League, would the Arsenal fans expect the same touches of genius I expected to see in the MLS and how would Henry adapt to playing for a much different Arsenal to the overly successful team he played in during the early part of the century?
A week in football is a long time and after Henry’s dramatic performance against an inferior team in Leeds, Arsenal came up against the surprise package of Premier League this season, Swansea City. With the game entering the 63rd minute, Arsenal were trailing Swansea by two goals to one and looking like they were on course for a seventh league defeat of the season. Enter Henry for no doubt another heroic performance where he would single handedly rescue the Arsenal and bring the points home. The reality was somewhat more realistic. Arsenal went on to lose the game 3-2 with Henry having a negative role to play in Swansea’s winning goal, needlessly giving the ball away near the halfway line. At the full time whistle Henry even became involved in an argument with one of his own supporters as they vented their frustration on another disappointing performance from their team. Henry, visibly irate and frustrated, had words with the supporter in question, demanding that he should be supporting the team not criticising.
In the space of his first week back as an Arsenal player Henry has experienced both extremes of life as a professional footballer, taking the role as both hero and villain. But if Henry’s only contribution during his short loan spell was a winning goal which helped Arsenal progress in the FA Cup wouldn’t that constitute a success? Or will the expectations of Arsenal supporters exceed Henry’s actual abilities on the football pitch, playing in a league which has done nothing but get more competitive during his absence?
Henry is of course not the only footballer migrating from the MLS during the league’s off season, Landon Donovan has returned to Everton for a second spell, Robbie Keane has joined Aston Villa for eight weeks and more short term moves are currently being mooted. Like Henry, these players have taken advantage of the opportunity to return to a league they love but the debate is over how successful these moves can prove to be and if successful what void do these players leave at their loan clubs? I believe that these ever-popular loan spells from the MLS to the Premier League are a success, allowing seasoned professionals to come into clubs and add a helping hand and also giving younger professionals in America the chance to spend time in a more superior league and giving them the chance to show what they can do. What is most obvious though is that the MLS is slowly joining the top table of world football.
From the games I have seen and judging by the number of players beginning to make permanent moves in both directions over the pond it is obvious that the MLS is developing at a rapid pace. The league is constantly expanding, welcoming more teams into its divisions and spreading the game of football further across the United States of America and into Canada.
I want to finish by posing a question to you all. With the current development and popularity of football in America how long will it be until European footballers start to spend their off seasons playing in the MLS for a short period? It is an interesting question as with the rising playing standards and increases in advertising and revenue European footballers may be advised to play in America whilst not needed in their own leagues in order to boost their profile and bank balances at the same time. We all hate to think that our heroes have become mercenaries whose souls have been sold for money but that is just the game we live in today. Weather a club like Manchester United would allow Wayne Rooney to spend his summer playing for the Vancouver Whitecaps is another question but isn’t player power everything these days?
So Arsenal fans, next time you see Henry playing for your team remember that he is there because he loves the club, he loves the fans. In my opinion he is there because he answered an SOS call, an Arsenal legend who should be expect to help the team, not to perform miracles on a weekly basis.