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Hartnett: Red Bulls’ Thierry Henry Is Trailblazing Soccer In NY’s Backyard

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Thierry Henry (credit: Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Red Bulls)

Thierry Henry (credit: Mike Stobe/Getty Images for New York Red Bulls)

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‘Red Bulls’ Report’
By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns

There is a superstar captivating fans inside the New York metropolitan sports landscape. But you would be searching in vain trying to find him at the usual haunts of Yankee Stadium, Madison Square Garden, Citi Field or the Meadowlands.

His face is more recognizable worldwide than Derek Jeter and claims a following that the Yankee captain could never possibly garner.  He is revered by the cities of London and Barcelona and idolized universally in his home nation of France.

Legendary French football icon Thierry Henry is playing right here in New York’s backyard.  His stage, Red Bull Arena, is a jewel that many top-level European clubs would love to call their own.  The state of the art complex is an impressive sight to first-time fans as it both aesthetically pleasing and features a fresh, modern design.  When entering the arena, you are immediately overcome by the aura of a major European ground and are welcomed by the raucous atmosphere generated by Red Bull supporters.

Holding a capacity of just over 25,000, Red Bull Arena seats half that of Yankee Stadium but those gathered inside are feverishly passionate throughout the entire 90 minutes of play.  I’ve stood in the supporters sections and the chants directed at the opposition would make even the most boorish ‘Bleacher Creature’ blush.  The ambiance generated at Red Bull Arena is colorful, carnivalistic and unlike anything another New York area stadium can boast.

It is in this setting that Henry is entertaining the masses as he’s done throughout his glittering career.  He hasn’t looked back since bursting upon the scene during the 1998 World Cup where his three goals helped France to their first ever World Cup title.  Enjoying instant success at Arsenal, he became the goal scorer of his generation and the club’s all-time record holder with 226 goals in 369 appearances.  Along with winning Euro 2000 with France, Henry claimed numerous trophies with Arsenal both individually and for the club.  He was a key member of their 2003/04 team dubbed ‘The Invincibles’ that went undefeated for the entire Premier League season, a feat only previously managed 115 years earlier.

His 2007 move to Barcelona saw him earn further plaudits and league titles.  It was with the Catalan giants where he first attained club football’s ultimate prize by winning the UEFA Champions League in 2009.  Between his accomplishments for France, Arsenal and Barcelona, Henry had little left to prove in his career.  A fresh challenge beckoned the Frenchman across the Atlantic, toward the great city of New York.

The target now in Henry’s sights is earning the admiration of New Yorkers and launching soccer into the forefront of the Big Apple sports scene along with growing the game in America.  Some will point out that the star power of David Beckham didn’t do the trick but Henry brings a much different package of attributes to the table.

Unlike the ‘Beckham experiment’ in Los Angeles, Henry is fully committed to the Red Bulls and doesn’t entertain thoughts of prolonging his national team career or going back on loan to Europe.  Another reason why Beckham didn’t take off in America is that outside of his stunning free kicks, he is a slow, uncreative footballer.  Henry is much nearer to his prime than Becks and hasn’t lost much of the electric pace of his youth.  His game is based around deception, taking on defenders and unpredictable moments that leave fans breathless.

After a season adjusting to the MLS, Henry has caught fire in his sophomore year in the States.  He’s rediscovered his scoring touch, netting in five of his past six games and currently leads the league with 8 goals.  In his latest appearance for the Red Bulls, Henry sparked a late comeback from a two-goal deficit late in the second half.

The Red Bulls were shorthanded without the services of Rafael Marquez, Dane Richards, Juan Agudelo and Tim Ream away on international duty at the Gold Cup.  With strike partner Luke Rodgers injured and the Red Bulls’ back four leaking in goals, Henry pulled the Red Bulls within a goal by weaving through the Portland Timbers’ defense and finishing coolly.  A bizarre refereeing decision led to Henry’s dismissal but his inspiration charged up his teammates who clawed back an equalizer just before the final whistle.

Like Beckham, Henry is an ambassador for the sport though his popularity isn’t based upon underwear modeling but instead through goodwill like Pelé.  After an on-camera incident where Spanish manager Luis Aragonés referred to Henry using a racial slur, it spurred him to form the ‘Stand Up, Speak Up’ campaign to combat racism in soccer.  It earned him a listing in Time Magazine’s list of 100 ‘Heroes and Pioneers.’  Throughout his career, Henry has also supported the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and AIDS research.

If Henry isn’t already one of your idols, he should be now.   A trailblazer in sport and society, he has one goal on his mind and that’s to raise the profile of soccer in New York and America.  “For me, there wasn’t any other option.  I wanted to play for the Red Bulls and I wanted to represent New York.  It was like a no-brainer for me,” he told reporters in Portland this weekend.

Has Thierry Henry changed your perception on soccer in America?  Will his presence help the MLS make the breakthrough in American society?  Share your thoughts below and send your tweets to @HartyLFC.

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