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Since joining the New York Red Bulls last month, Thierry Henry, the 33-year-old French striker and international superstar, has been making the rounds of the local morning shows. It was on one such program recently that a bubbly host mispronounced his name before congratulating him on winning this year's World Cup. (Les Bleus, memorably, flamed out in the group stage.) Americans and soccer, right, Thierry?
Not at all, he said after a practice last Thursday at Montclair (N.J.) State. "You guys here shouldn't be having like a—how do you call this? In French you say complexe?" asked Henry, the three-time world player of the year who signed a 4½-year, $20.3 million deal with New York in July. "You guys have good stadiums, you have good players and you have good fans. Obviously the game needs to grow, and that's why we are all here."
Significantly, "we" now includes Rafael Márquez, Henry's teammate the past three seasons in Barcelona, who signed a reported 3½-year, $12 million deal with the Red Bulls on Aug. 2, and who might very well be the most important player ever to join MLS—Henry and David Beckham included. (MLS teams are permitted to sign three so-called "designated players" [DPs] who can be paid a market wage but count just $335,000 each against a team's $2.55 million salary cap.) A global star like Henry, Márquez is an icon in his home country of Mexico and captained El Tri in South Africa this summer. He should be a major drawing card among Mexican-Americans. (About a third of its fan base is Hispanic.) At 31 he's still in his prime, and he is the type of player MLS clubs have rarely had: a central midfielder with skill and vision who can elevate the play of his entire team.
On Saturday night, in front of a sellout crowd of 25,000 at brand-new Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., New York took on Landon Donovan and the Western Conference--leading L.A. Galaxy. It was clear that the Red Bulls' imports weren't yet fully in sync. In a 1--0 loss New York was called eight times for offside, and twice Márquez just missed with beautiful bending free kicks into the box to Colombian striker Juan Pablo Ángel, New York's incumbent DP. "You can't bring in new players like that and expect them to jell overnight," said Donovan.
After 15 years of judicious growth, MLS seems to be now firmly in its adolescence, and the Red Bulls' caffeine-fortified ambition is pushing it toward an adulthood in which there will be ever more full-house, high-quality games like this. "People were telling me so many times, 'Don't expect much, they don't really play football,' " says Henry. "That is not true."
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Read Grant Wahl on MLS and the international game at SI.com/soccer