Nor has Henry been just a set-up man. In a 3--1 win against Colorado on Sept. 11, he scored one of the classiest goals in MLS this season. Receiving the ball in the air on the left side, he flicked it with the outside of his left foot to midfielder Joel Lindpere, traded two more innocuous-looking passes with his Estonian teammate, then knifed toward the goal and took Lindpere's exquisite back-heel feed in mid-stride, finishing a hard-angled strike with the type of ease he showed while scoring 174 times for Arsenal from 1999 to 2007. It was a devastating combination of speed, guile and technique—one that made the Colorado players look like defenders on a Foosball table.
MLS needs the aesthetics Henry provides to win over fans who've dismissed it as minor league compared with the top European circuits. Henry has spearheaded some of the most entertaining teams in modern soccer—Barcelona, Arsenal, Zidane's France—and so far he's been pleasantly surprised by his American experience. "People were telling me, 'Don't expect much. It's not like in Europe. It's all direct long ball,' " says Henry, who sat out last Saturday's 2--1 loss to Philadelphia with a mild knee strain. "But I don't particularly agree. We've played against some teams that were trying to pass the ball. I've seen some good players in this league. And the fans: In Chicago I felt like I was at an away game in Europe. In Toronto and Houston too. The fields were great. I was very happy about it."
The positive vibe hasn't always been reciprocated by opposing fans. Henry earned catcalls in Dallas on Sept. 16 for a freak play in which he ran to hammer a celebratory blast into the net after a New York goal and caught the foot of Dallas goalie Kevin Hartman, putting the MLS Goalkeeper of the Year candidate out for three weeks with a sprained right MCL. "The most important thing for me was to apologize to him," says Henry, who was fined $2,000 by the league. "What I did was a stupid thing. I explained that I didn't mean to hurt him, and it was an accident."
Henry also is still adjusting to the peculiarities of sports in the U.S. Some things seem "weird," as he puts it: Having to dress in front of journalists in the locker room, a place regarded as the players' private sanctum in Europe, and teams being free to trade players at the drop of a hat. ("The guy wakes up, and they say you're gone," he says. "That couldn't happen in Europe. It's kind of harsh.")
At the same time, Henry finds other aspects of U.S. sports refreshing. While attending a Yankees game recently, Henry realized that he has never heard any racist taunts from U.S. fans. In 2005 he founded Stand Up, Speak Up, a campaign that encouraged European soccer players and fans to oppose racist behavior—which is all too common on the Continent, whether it's throwing bananas at black athletes or leading slur-filled chants. Henry himself was the subject of a shocking slur in '04, when Spain coach Luis Aragonés, imploring one of his defenders to play Henry aggressively, was overheard referring to Henry as a "black s---." Aragonés was fined 3,000 euros by the Spanish Football Federation.
"I've been to a lot of arenas to watch NBA games and the Yankees, and I have never heard anyone have a go at a guy because he's from Puerto Rico or the Dominican or Africa or wherever," Henry says. "I can understand why people in America are kind of shocked, because that doesn't happen in their sports. In Europe it's quite often, unfortunately, but now I think it's getting better."
Cheering like a madman is perfectly fine, of course, and you can expect Henry to give Spike Lee a run for his money sitting courtside at Knicks games in Madison Square Garden. A self-confessed NBA fanatic, Henry says he's dying to watch Turiaf, the French power forward who joined the Knicks this season, and Henry recalls with childlike glee riding in the boat parade on the San Antonio Riverwalk as Parker and the Spurs celebrated their 2006--07 NBA title. "It may sound stupid," says Henry, "but for me touching the NBA trophy was crazy. It was nice to see from the other side."
These days, as the Red Bulls eye their best chance to win an MLS title, the only question is how much longer Henry will enjoy the freedom to ride the PATH train. On an early fall afternoon in SoHo he's walking in a gray hoodie on Prince Street near Broadway when a gaggle of Frenchwomen halts in their tracks. "Thierry Henry! Thierry Henry!" they titter at Titi, stopping him for photographs. Now it's open season. A group of Mexican teenagers surround Henry and start snapping away. Before long the crowd is turning into a mob, and several hipster Americans are gawking at the global celebrity. "Is that the soccer player?" one asks.
Why, yes. Yes, it is. For Henry the recognition is both a blessing and a curse. Soccer matters again in New York City—and his days of anonymity are numbered.
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