MLS Icons, Thierry Henry: New York's complex perfectionist

Illustration: John Sheehan

He was selfless but selfish; demanding but understanding; visitor, yet a New Yorker. One thing is for sure: Henry was a legend.

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Thierry Henry was a lot of different things to a lot of different people. As the banner that once hung from the South Ward at Red Bull Arena claimed, ‘Gunner. Red Bull. Legend.’

Few of those associated with the New York Red Bulls during Henry’s four-year stay will object to that characterization.At the same time, those three words fail to capture the complexity of an MLS superstar who seemed to understand New York City as if he were born there.

Henry was determined to do New York his way from the moment he touched down for his introductory press conference in 2010. He was not going to compromise himself to win people over, and he didn’t need to. He was arriving from Barcelona, one of Europe’s best.

Henry reaffirmed his habit of individualism from the outset with the Red Bulls. An inauspicious start featured zero goals in his first three games played in 2011, and it brought questions from fans about their new star. After a particularly frustrating mid-April night against the San Jose Earthquakes, a game in which he squandered a number of chances, Henry finally found the net with a back-post header. His celebration was hardly reconciliation with his new home crowd. Instead, Henry pointed to the name on his shirt, and shooed away teammates so he could engage with those same doubters in a less than diplomatic way (7:20 mark in the video below).

“I think Thierry is always going to be true to himself; there’s no doubt about that,” Erik Stover, the former managing director at the Red Bulls, told FourFourTwo. “He scored in the first match we had, a friendly against Tottenham Hotspur, and then he was dealing with some nagging injuries – not serious stuff - but he wasn’t 100 percent. I think he got upset about being pushed and not having a reasonable expectation in adjusting to the league. I think he was always like that.”

It would be unfair to paint Henry as some melodramatic, however. A complicated star, his passion on the pitch was matched with a compassion off it. He once organized Arsenal tickets for teammate Ryan Meara before taking him on a tour of the Emirates Stadium and introducing him to the club’s manager, Arsene Wenger.

“I certainly have many fond memories of Thierry and many could be mentioned,” Erik Soler, the Red Bulls general manager when Henry signed in 2010, told FFT. “I remember when the iPad came to market and he went and bought it. Only he did not just buy one for himself, but one for each player on the roster and the coaching staff as well. He did things like this for others many times, he was a superb guy.”

I’m getting ready to do my pregame [speech], and I ask, ‘Where’s Thierry?’ Someone says, ‘Oh, he’s outside arguing with fans.’ I had to run outside to go get him and drag him inside.

- Mike Petke

The connection was more than materialistic: Henry, expressing a more subtle recognition of his place in growing the league, shared his wisdom from a 16-year career in Europe’s top leagues.

“I always say to people, talking soccer with Thierry was like talking physics with Albert Einstein,” said Mike Petke, a former teammate and coach of Henry at the Red Bulls and now head coach of Real Salt Lake. “He saw things on the field, in life, that I didn’t even think about looking for. That’s how deep he dove into soccer.”

Petke said that as Red Bulls coach, he made it clear that final decisions were in his hands, but he sought input from his “coach on the field,” Henry.

“One of the few regrets I have as a coach with New York is that it took me a while to bring him into my circle,” Petke said. “Some of that is inexperience as a coach, some of that is maybe arrogance and pride, but eventually I started having conversations with Thierry. They weren’t just about Red Bulls, but also his experiences; Pep Guardiola, about training at Barcelona and Arsenal, and Arsene Wenger. From there I’d call him in regularly and ask him what he thought.”

Henry was just as willing to pass along that wisdom to teammates.

“Obviously, with Thierry’s personality it’s tough sometimes,” striker Bradley Wright-Phillips told FFT. “He has high standards. In the beginning, it was hard to adjust to, but I grew up like that playing football and people being tough on you. At the end of it, he’s a big part of why I’ve done well here. I took a lot from that man I was grateful for him being here and having the opportunity to play with him.”

That, however, was not the complete Thierry Henry. He refused to play on turf and could at times be withdrawn, moody, and distant.

Henry also had no issue engaging opposition supporters. After one goal at RFK Stadium against D.C. United the Frenchman could be seen encouraging United fans to boo him more, a story that does not surprise his former coach.

“MLS had plenty of villains – as you call it – before him, but never a player of his stature,” Petke said. “I remember we went to Philadelphia and I’m getting ready to do my pregame [speech], and I ask, ‘Where’s Thierry?’ Someone says, ‘Oh, he’s outside arguing with fans.’ I had to run outside to go get him and drag him inside.”

Such a complex personality could be tough to coach. As a professional, Henry was about punctuality and respect. Soler, Petke, and others confirmed Henry was always first to arrive and last to leave the club’s New Jersey training center.

For Petke, those perceived negative aspects of Henry’s character presented themselves for legitimate reasons.

“I’ve always used the Michael Jordan or Wayne Gretzky comparison when talking about Thierry,” Petke said. “To get to that level you have to be a bit different, otherwise everyone would get to that level. Because of that, he had extremely high expectations, not just for those around him, but also for himself.”

He managed to balance a thriving social life in the city, occasionally watching the New York Knicks with Spike Lee, with the professional commitment the Red Bulls demanded. Sometimes, however, his message was not easily understood in the moment and took reflection to grasp.

I always say to people, talking soccer with Thierry was like talking physics with Albert Einstein.

- Mike Petke

“One of the best conversations I ever had with him was when I was assistant coach [at the Red Bulls],” Petke said. “He was infuriated one day because of a long ball one of our players – from college no less – had played to him that was nowhere near him. I said to him, ‘you have to understand that in MLS you’re not going to have a [Carles] Puyol or a [Gerard] Pique sending you balls from 60 yards on a dime every time.’

“He told me he knew that, but what he was talking about was decision-making. He said, ‘You don’t have to be Pique and Puyol to make the right decision.’ He was absolutely right, and that’s when I started understanding him. I really thought he was frustrated by the quality, but he wasn’t. He was frustrated by players not making the right decisions.”

Statistically, Henry’s best season in MLS arrived in 2012, when he notched 15 goals and 12 assists during the regular season. However, his greatest achievement during his time in the league came one year later, when the team lifted the Supporters’ Shield – which handed Petke his first major title as a coach, and the maiden trophy of the Red Bull era in New York.

But Henry’s MLS legacy isn’t a moment, it’s a series of them woven together to form a beautiful tapestry. Gunner. Red Bull. Legend. MLS icon.

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