The "Henry effect" just won't go away.
It is an idea that has been around pretty much since Thierry Henry arrived to play for the New York Red Bulls. He is the team's captain and best player. Part of being the team's best player is making the players around him better.
And Titi does this, no question: the same way LA Galaxy players have benefited over the years from a "Beckham effect", or a "Donovan effect", or a "Keane effect"; the same way the 2014 Seattle Sounders have gained advantage from a "Dempsey effect" and a "Martins effect"; the same way Toronto FC will one day benefit from a "Bradley effect", assuming the team doesn't have another panic attack and sell all its players in exchange for a coach who doesn't object to the front office staging impromptu press conferences when results are poor.
Good players make for better teams, that is their "effect". Sometimes, it is measured by their statistical achievements: Nick Rimando has a lot of shutouts, Chris Wondolowski scores a lot of goals. Sometimes, not so much: Michael Bradley has one goal and one assist so far this season, and that's fine - he's not the sort of player expected to be a leader in either category, but he is unquestionably very good and any team in MLS would sacrifice a great deal to get him.
The "Henry effect" has popped up this season as way of explaining the performance of another Bradley: Wright-Phillips, who has scored 20 goals in 24 appearances (as of September 2nd). He is the league's leading-scorer, he just broke his club's all-time single-season record for league goals; he is having a helluva year.
It is certainly true that Henry has increasingly adopted a playmaking role for RBNY over the course of his time at the club. This year could well be his most productive in that regard: he has 11 assists from 22 appearances to date in 2014; his personal best for RBNY is 12 assists in 2012.
And it shouldn't be too surprising to learn that the team's best and most creative player has connected more often with its best and most effective goal scorer more times than with any other player on the team: Henry is credited with assisting BWP on seven occasions so far this year.
Good for the Red Bulls - at least something is going right. RBNY has one of the most effective attacking partnerships in the league.
Not quite, say advocates of the "Henry effect". This Henry-BWP symbiosis cannot be explained simply as the fortuitous combination of two players - one great and one good - in exceptional form.
If you look back at the captain's strike partners over the last four seasons, you see they have all scored lots of goals: Luke Rodgers had 10 in 2011; Kenny Cooper had 19 in 2012; in 2013, Fabian Espindola got 11 and Tim Cahill got 12. There's your "Henry effect": his strike partners score many goals.
And, this season at least, there is some elegant and well-considered statistical analysis to support the hypothesis.
There is one problem: this discounts the ability and contribution of the other player involved - you know, the one scoring all these goals - and it also is an odd way of describing a team's entirely rational effort to get its best attacking players time on the ball and options in front of goal. This is traditionally described as "tactics", and when your tactics achieve their objectives, this is traditionally defined as "successful tactics".
A paranoid person - say, for example, a RBNY fan who thinks many league observers are predisposed to diminish the Red Bulls' achievements (ARE THEY NOT SUFFICIENTLY MODEST?) - might call this selecting facts to support a preconception.
A less sensitive individual might point out most of the commentary comes in the form of a compliment to Henry. The tone of the press corps regarding RBNY's captain was once grudging but is now gushing. Gone are the days when reporters seemed more interested in the games Titi wasn't playing than those he was, now most are attuned to his possible retirement. The "Henry effect" might not be so much an effort to bury BWP as it is to praise Thierry Henry.
Either way, few attempt to make a case for including the 2013 season in this tale of Henry's ability to raise colleagues to new heights. Why? One suspects it is because Espindola and Cahill arrived at RBNY with reputations as capable goalscorers. One of them, Espindola, has moved on to be even better for DC than he was for New York. The other, Cahill, isn't scoring at anything close to the level he achieved in 2013.
Henry had a role to play alongside both players, of course, but it's not consistent with the "effect" hypothesis, since you are effectively suggesting Titi held Espindola back in 2013 (a little bit true) and is failing to work his magic on Cahill in 2014 (also a little bit true). So 2013 is more an argument for an "Henry hex" on Espindola (last year) and Cahill (this year) than a boost.
Also, to say Thierry Henry is a big part of Espindola or Cahill's goalscoring success in 2013 sounds a little silly: they were each proven attacking players prior to arriving at RBNY. Sure, they needed to find a place in the team alongside the captain, but to suggest whatever success they enjoyed was boosted by Henry for reasons beyond his tactical role as the team's attacking leader - well, it's nonsense, isn't it?
Fabian Espindola and Tim Cahill don't need Thierry Henry to teach them how to score goals. It is akin to suggesting Clint Dempsey is mostly finding goals for the Sounders this season because of Obafemi Martins. It has a ring of truth, but not so much that you would suggest Martins is raising Dempsey's overall level of play.
RBNY needs Henry firing to win games; curiously, the players who have benefited from (and contributed to) his best work have often been of lesser reputation. It would appear "Henry makes them better" is an easier explanation to reach for than "I may have underestimated that guy."
In essence, the "Henry effect" has grown into a useful explanation of the goal scoring success of BWP, and Kenny Cooper before him, and Luke Rodgers before him. Because each of these players, for not drastically different reasons, arrived at RBNY without great expectation. That each turned out to be an upper-echelon scorer for RBNY, and a fan favorite, is troubling if you believed these guys to be fundamentally not very good at their job and have difficulty admitting you were wrong.
Another way to describe the "Henry effect"? Try: consistently underestimating the talents of proven, experienced goal scorers.
This post is the first of a series that will look for the "Henry effect" in each of the four seasons in question.
What's that? Henry was at RBNY for half a season in 2010? Yes, he was - and his effect was muted. He got two goals and three assists in 12 appearances. Not terrible, but he wasn't anything like the player anyone was expecting to see.
And that is an important point to remember when considering the case of the first subject of this series, Luke Rodgers.
The case against Luke Rodgers is simple: he never played at a high level prior to arriving in MLS. Rodgers was 29 when he was signed by RBNY. He started his career as a professional footballer when he was 17. Before MLS, he'd worked his entire life in England, never rising above the level of the Championship, the second tier of English soccer.
He had never been a youth international. Never been picked to play for his country (he has a cap for England C, effectively the semi-pro national team). Never played in the top league of any nation in the world prior to joining MLS.
So he scores 10 goals in MLS in his first season - how could this be? "Henry effect"!
First, Rodgers was hardly an unknown quantity. In his 12 professional seasons before he became a New York Red Bull, Rodgers had scored 120 goals (per Wikipedia). He'd scored double-digit goals in five of those 12 seasons.
He did appear to have a clear ceiling: Rodgers only scored six goals in his one and only season in the Championship (for Crewe Alexandra). So he was never perhaps an exceptional talent, but he was certainly competent. One might suggest 120 goals as a professional is exceptionally competent.
He was a journeyman (he played for five clubs in those 12 seasons), but lower league football in England is a place of short-term contracts and somewhat volatile finances.
He was, nonetheless, a player of decent reputation. And, most importantly, the RBNY coach at the time - Hans Backe - had worked with him. Backe was coach of Notts County for a couple of months in the 2009-10 season. Long enough to find out the club was in a bad way and get the hell out, but also long enough to get to know the squad.
Rodgers scored 14 goals for Notts County that season, and at the end of it, Hans Backe tried to sign him for RBNY. It didn't work out (visa issues). But Backe persisted, and US immigration relented: Rodgers was a Red Bull in January 2011, in time for the new season.
Those analyses that reference Rodgers as arriving at RBNY having scored just one goal in his previous season are not wrong, just disingenuous. He played five times for Notts County in the half-season it took for his transfer to MLS to be sorted out, and he scored one goal. Unsurprising given that he was known to be working on moving to another team in another league.
Fans and pundits may not have been impressed by Rodgers' past achievements, but the simple fact is that he was hired by Hans Backe because the RBNY manager knew what he could do.
Did Backe expect Rodgers to become Thierry Henry's primary strike partner and fan favorite by the end of 2010? No. Rodgers started the season as a bench option. Henry was paired with Juan Agudelo initially, but it didn't work out over the course of the year.
Luke Rodgers was the first of a succession of second-choice strike partners who worked their way up to become indisputable starters over the course of a season. We'll get to the rest of them, this is about the little big man.
Was there a discernible "Henry effect" on Luke Rodgers in 2011?
Hardly. If anything, it was the other way around.
Rodgers scored 10 goals in all competitions in his one and only season as a Red Bull. Of those 10, three came from assists from Thierry Henry.
That's 30%! Calm down.
First, big percentages often emerge from small samples. In 2012, three of Chris Wondolowski's first 10 goals were assisted by Tressor Moreno. "Moreno effect"? The Quakes didn't think so: he was released after 12 appearances. And Wondo's scoring wasn't held back at all - that was the year he got 27.
Last year, Camilo Sanvezzo had three assists on his first 10 goals from Russell Teibert, and three on his second 10 from Lee Young-pyo. Mike Magee got assisted three times on his first 10 in Chicago from Patrick Nyarko. Indeed, Magee got 4 of the 15 goals in total he scored for the Fire last season from Nyarko - which is one goal shy of 30%. A "Nyarko nudge" maybe? I don't remember it being mentioned in the discussion of Magee's MVP year.
More currently, Gyasi Zardes has four assists from Marcelo Sarvas among his 12 goals to date in MLS. And six of his goals to date have been assisted by Robbie Keane.
Are we talking about the "Keane effect", or are we looking at this as the season Zardes stakes his claim to be the consistent goal scorer it was thought he could be when he turned pro? Of course Zardes gets a lot of help from Keane - his tactical role, at least recently, is to be the main finisher up front, keeping defenders guessing as to whether Keane and Landon Donovan are going to pass or shoot. It's working very well. Bruce Arena is a savvy coach; Donovan, Keane and Zardes are good players.
Speaking of Donovan, he's been assisted four times by Keane on his way to seven goals for the season to date. But it is nonsense to talk about a Keane effect on Donovan, because LD has scored more than 140 goals in MLS, working with all sorts of people, finding all sorts of ways to score.
Good creative players create goals. Good goal scorers score them. Some do both.
The fact Rodgers got three assists on 10 goals from Thierry Henry is not an effect. Not unless you are ready to accept all the other unheralded "effects" of past and present MLS seasons.
Still, in 2011, Henry was more about scoring than creating. He scored 14, but only got four assists. Yet, within the limited number of goals he did directly set up, three were to Rodgers. Effect!
Slow. Your. Roll.
One of those three was a secondary assist:
Henry played the pivot in a quickly taken Rafa Marquez free kick, flicking the ball wide for Dwayne De Rosario. Dero took a touch, ran as fast as his legs would allow, getting ahead of his marker just long enough to send a cross in for Rodgers. It was a quick, slick routine executed by four experienced players, each of whom - from Marquez (who presumably saw Henry's intention to punch the ball out to Dero quickly) to Henry, to Dero (who read the pass and made the run necessary to turn into something), and Rodgers (who knew his job was to be in the six-yard box to finish it all off).
That is the effect of having good players on a team. RBNY didn't see enough of it in 2011.
What it did see was 10 goals from Luke Rodgers. Two of them set up in the style proposed by the Henry effect.
Two of them were assisted Jan Gunnar Solli. Two of them were assisted by Roy Miller. Two of them were scored in games Henry didn't play in at all.
MLS was impressed enough after he'd scored just six goals to put together a little highlight video to plead his case for the All-Star team:
There is a reason Rodgers is highly regarded by fans who witnessed the 2011 season: he was a vital part of the team's limited success that year.
Of his 10 goals, four were match-winners (Henry had three game-winning goals that season). RBNY had 10 wins in 2011. Fans don't always remember who provided the assist on each goal (largely because there are usually more good chances to score than actual goals in every game), but goals that lead the way to wins stick in the memory a little better.
Indeed, in 2011, a goal from Luke Rodgers always meant at least a point - until the end. His last strike for RBNY, in the second leg of the 2011 playoff series against LA Galaxy, was the opening goal in a match the Red Bulls lost 2-1. It was the first time he had scored in a game RBNY didn't win or tie.
There was a Rodgers effect at work in 2011, and we missed it when it was gone. At least until Kenny Cooper started scoring. But he is the subject of the next piece.
For now, if you're looking for an "Henry effect" on Luke Rodgers, look elsewhere. You are referencing three assists, one of which was just quick pass to the wing in the hope Dero could make something out of the opportunity.
The suggestion that a man who had scored 120 goals in 12 seasons as a professional footballer was transformed, revitalized, resuscitated or otherwise elevated by Thierry Henry is as ridiculous as the suggestion Landon Donovan is only scoring goals this season because of Robbie Keane.
Rodgers knew his way to the net, and it was that talent that recommended him to play alongside Thierry Henry. No one is suggesting he is the most talented forward ever to play for this team. He wasn't even the second-most talented forward on the 2011 RBNY squad. That was surely Juan Agudelo.
But Rodgers was older, more experienced, perhaps better suited to the task of keeping up with the tactical requirements of his manager and reading the intentions of his teammates.
And of all the assists made by any player that season, the most important came from Luke Rodgers. He set up Thierry Henry's first goal of the year, in RBNY's fifth game of the year.
It was against San Jose at Red Bull Arena. It was raining. RBNY had five points from four games, and hadn't won since opening day. Henry was getting more jeers than cheers from the fans, as he labored to find a finishing touch. He hadn't scored for New York since September of 2010; RBNY's supporters had watched 12 games without a goal from the man who was supposed to be the face of the franchise, and whose arrival was blamed for the departure of all-time leading scorer, Juan Pablo Angel. Henry was not settling in well. He looked frustrated. The fans echoed that frustration.
Rodgers scored his first two goals of the season that night, one set up by Henry. But he devoted himself to helping his captain find the net - and it was his cross that found Henry's head for the third and final goal of the match. After that, Titi never really looked back.
An unselfish and intelligent strike partner was exactly what Henry needed that night, and exactly what Rodgers provided throughout the season. He got three (really, two) assists out of the captain in return.
Who had the greater effect?