Last night much of the humble corner of the internet you and I reside in was enthralled by the sight of Lionel Messi at Red Bull Arena. Over his long career the ubiquitous Argentine legend (and loyal MTA sponsor) had somehow avoided a trip to Harrison until last night’s international friendly against Jamaica as he warms up for what is almost certain to be his final World Cup.
Many remarked, correctly, that Messi is the most important player to have ever walked onto the pitch at RBA, a venue that has seen a disproportionate amount of luminaries pass through for one of its size, age, and peripheral location in the grand scheme of global football. But it’s hard for this writer to not feel something a little tasteless about breathlessly bestowing such an obvious title on a player whose relationship with the stadium will likely end up consisting of a single meaningless exhibition game that felt more like a sponsored meet-and-greet once maladjusted pitch invaders began entering the fray.
This feeling is borne not only out of the inherent insignificance of Messi’s appearance, but the fact that so many players well within the rarefied air he resides in have already made so much more of a concrete impact on the stadium’s reputation as the cathedral of the American game. David Beckham, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and David Villa are just a few of the icons who have made more than a passing glance and have fought for postseason spots and grinded through derbies in Harrison through the years.
But none have made a more substantial impact on the story of Red Bull Arena than Thierry Henry. The French legend spent only the twilight years of his decorated career with the New York Red Bulls, but unlike most MLS celebrity signings, his legacy on the field and affection for the club ever since goes well beyond obligation and formality. It’s been eight years now since his last game in Harrison, but Henry’s magic in the final third and wide network across the sport continues to bless the Red Bulls with many of the pillars that held up an entire generation of success, including the club’s first trophies.
Despite a heavy schedule of television punditry and a burgeoning coaching career, Henry returns to Red Bull Arena for matches regularly and mixes and mingles with Ryan Meara on the same level you would imagine he does with Fabien Barthez. At a friendly earlier this summer between the Red Bulls and another former club FC Barcelona, Henry was a guest of honor and brandished a custom split jersey which gestured that his affection for the five-time European champions was only equal at best to the place that the Red Bulls hold in his heart.
This morning Henry’s love affair with RBNY goes on record further than it ever has before in the latest episode of the club-produced Lade Out podcast. Sitting down with former teammates Connor Lade and Bradley Wright-Phillips, Henry discussed not only old stories from the stunning highs and shallow, whimsical lows of his career in New York and beyond but also the depth of his relationship with the club and consciousness for its culture.
“You know, we’ve all been asked a question yesterday about titles and all of that — and it does matter don’t get me wrong — but I think it is what you transmit to people, what you do transcends on the field and when people can relate to you and how you used to play whether you win or you didn’t win, you know when they can relate when you have that connection with the fans, it always stays and that’s what I felt here.”
Henry remarks upon how even the more combative and negative tendencies of New York fans continue to endear him to the club.
“When you have the connection with the fans, it always stays, and that’s what I felt here. They would let me know like ‘what the f is this?’…they’d let me know, I’d let them know, but then at the end it’s all love.”
“I like people in New York because they let you know what’s what.”
These are comments and sentiments that go far beyond the often shallow relationships players can have with the far-flung clubs they scrape up their final paychecks with. It’s often easy to frame the most renowned MLS designated players as deities blessing this country and its still-primitive soccer scene with their presence in a way that belittles the entire premise and frankly isn’t much fun. But Henry, one of the most decorated players ever to play in the league, clearly saw his detour to an even less-built out league as much of a situation where he was impressed upon by the city and club.
Part of the reason I maintain a general disposition against the idea that celebrity star players are a tonic for all that ails Red Bull New York is that even the most momentous of such signings can easily feel artificial and transient. Recent signings that were epochal on paper such as Steven Gerrard and Kaká (not to mention superstars you might have forgotten are still in the league like Gonzalo Higuain and Alexandre Pato) have felt like traveling museum exhibits showcasing the European game’s recent history, with the players leaving practically zero legacy upon an American scene they never really cared about impacting in the first place.
Thierry Henry’s needle-moving tenure in New York and continued affection for a club often deemed unfashionable by the broader domestic scene cuts deeper than these other relationships. His swaggering but dignified character is a monument to finding not just the best and most famous player possible but the best personality possible. Tactics and training and transfers might be the foundation of success, but in a sport like soccer with its emphasis on team cohesion and moments of gumption, intangible human charisma and dedication sets the healthiest teams apart.
In 2019, when Henry was rumored as a possible replacement for the beleaguered Chris Armas in the New York job after his failed debut managerial stint at AS Monaco, I was more than willing to go against every instinct I have about sound soccer strategy and be thrilled with the prospect. Managers with all the right badges and intricate drills are valuable but ultimately replaceable. Risks on rare figures with the deep charisma and soft power of Henry are capable of unlocking much further potential in a club’s trajectory.
Three years later it seems dubious that Henry, who left the CF Montréal job last season due to family concerns, will ever manage the Red Bulls or possibly any other team again. But his continued reverence for a club he could have easily kept at arm’s length remains a unique spiritual asset and will hopefully continue to. It’s hard to not be proud of your club when you see Thierry Henry still is.