Sunday could be Thierry Henry’s last day in professional soccer.
Except that the New York Red Bulls’ Eastern Conference semifinal against D.C. United is two-legged, so it won’t be. But maybe it will be, because he might get injured, or sent off, or dropped, or not turn up for the return match because he preferred to attend a Jean Renoir retrospective in the Meatpacking District. We just don’t know.
Perhaps he doesn’t know. Before he joined New York and discovered what annual soul-eviscerating end-of-season emptiness felt like, Henry grew quite accustomed to winning lots of stuff, so it’s possible that raising MLS Cup aloft would give him a suitable curtain call. Maybe he’s waiting to see how the team does, or the options that emerge.
Either way, it’s an issue that’s been smoldering in the background of the climax to the MLS season, like a candle you may or may not have extinguished. It’s probably fine, you tell yourself; but there’s a small chance it could flare up and burn down your house and leave you feeling an acute sense of loss.
If he is to retire, or leave – as Red Bull head of global football Gerard Houllier expects – then there’s a refreshingly unselfish tinct to his silence. The idea that a high-profile player’s exit would be a “distraction” is largely self-serving media talk, because Jamison Olave, Dax McCarty and friends aren’t giving Henry’s future a second thought when they step on to the field. The only way media speculation might unsettle a team is if it’s about the head coach.
By not revealing his intentions, Henry’s avoided prompting the sort of media attention that would consume the club at the business end of the year. The Los Angeles Galaxy’s Landon Donovan got most of his goodbyes out of the way early, revealing on August 8, a relatively quiet time in the regular season, that this would be his last campaign.
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Contrast the way David Beckham’s future dominated MLS Cup in 2011 and 2012. In 2011, with his contract expiring, a will-he stay or will-he go drama cast a leering – albeit handsome and impeccably groomed – shadow over the postseason. Or, more precisely, overshadowed coverage of the postseason, especially overseas, where Beckham was a totem for the entire league. Everything MLS was viewed through a Becks-tinted lens.
In January 2012 he surprisingly signed what was described as a new two-year deal with the Galaxy – only to leave for Paris Saint-Germain after L.A. had retained the Cup in December.
That decision was announced two weeks before the Cup rematch against the Houston Dynamo, meaning that the build-up, and the match itself, became a Beckham nostalgia-fest. No player, even a superior talent such as Henry, can equal the midfielder’s fame; but the Beckham-centric postseason narratives would have been less domineering if certainty had come earlier.
Of course, both for the player and the league, from a PR perspective, the timing was perfect. The auxiliary press boxes in Carson were overflowing with international reporters in 2011 and 2012. If New York beats D.C. and then either the New England Revolution or the Columbus Crew to reach MLS Cup, it’ll be interesting to see if Henry then reveals his hand. This year there’s only a week between the Conference finals and the grand final.
The expectation is that Henry will stop, because his contract’s up and he’s old: 37. But he’s just produced one of the best regular seasons in his four-and-a-half years in Harrison, partially thanks to the implausible emergence of Bradley Wright Phillips as the Gerd Muller of MLS. Or the Wondo of the Eastern Seaboard, if you prefer.
Henry’s made 30 starts, his MLS high, playing 2,651 minutes – also his best. He scored 10 goals, matching last year’s tally, and 14 assists (his best in a decade, beating his previous MLS high of 12) that account for one-third of Wright-Phillips’ 27 goals.
His shooting statistics are consistent with the earlier years of his New York career, too, though it’s perhaps possible to detect the slowing of his legs in the fact that he was only caught offside 12 times, half as much as in the two previous campaigns. That’s an indication that he was playing even deeper than usual, lurking in midfield where he has space and time.
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Given his pride and ego, it’s hard to imagine Henry wanting to risk the embarrassment and frustration of carrying on for a year too long, fading badly and being benched. But this reinvention – remembering that the trademark Henry move in his Arsenal heyday was cutting in behind the defense at dazzling speed from out wide and finishing with a precise diagonal shot – suggests he could continue to be successful in any league which gives him as much room as do his generous MLS opponents.
And Beckham, indefatigable in his prime yet barely able to run in his final months in America, left California for a successful brief spell with Paris Saint-Germain, even playing in the Champions League.
A light-hearted and speculative “five places Henry could go next” article in L’Equipe was seized upon by journalists in India because it floated the idea of him joining former teammates such as Robert Pires, Nicolas Anelka, Freddie Ljungberg and Mikael Silvestre in the new Indian Super League. So maybe he’ll go to India, fall in love with the culture and the architecture, and tattoo the Taj Mahal on his thighs (there’s no longer any space on his arms).
But if we’re watching the end of one of the world’s greatest players in the last 20 years without knowing it for sure, without being able to confidently create our own sense of closure and come to terms with the loss, that’s a strange, unsettling and unusual feeling.