Gods don't answer letters, John Updike wrote. But they do occasionally take public transportation. From the moment he joined the New York Red Bulls in July, Thierry Henry—World Cup winner, global pitchman, finest forward in English Premier League history—has journeyed from his home in Manhattan to his games in Harrison, N.J., with straphanger fans on the humble PATH train. "I couldn't have done it in London or Barcelona or Paris—it would have been chaos," says Henry, sipping his café au lait unbothered in a SoHo boîte. "You don't understand: I ... love ... it. It's just about being able to live."
The Frenchman isn't the first soccer megastar to embrace the relative peace and quiet of America after experiencing Europe's fútbol fishbowl. But it's hard to imagine any other player—not even Pelé in the 1970s—falling as hard for New York City as Henry has. Since his midsummer arrival on a 4½-year, $20.3 million contract, Henry has hung out in Central Park, dined at Meatpacking District restaurants and attended Yankees games, a U.S.-France basketball exhibition (with his NBA friends Tony Parker and Ronny Turiaf), the U.S. Open (where he saw his pal Roger Federer) and Broadway shows (Chicago, West Side Story and Lend Me a Tenor).
Last month Henry consummated his Gothamania by purchasing a sprawling SoHo apartment for a reported $14.8 million, then christening it by cooking dinner for friends: a West Indian gumbo with a chicken-and-rice dish that he learned from his mother, Maryse, a native of Martinique. When he's done playing, he plans to live in the city for the long haul. "For me it's pure love," says Henry, 33, who first visited New York on vacation in 1997 and has kept coming back. "You know the feeling the first time you come to New York? You turn around and say, 'I've seen this in a movie.' I always had a dream to come to New York and play soccer."
David Beckham's signing may have been the flashiest in Major League Soccer history, but Henry is the most accomplished player to join the league, a still-lethal finisher who scored 26 goals during Barcelona's run to the Champions League and Spanish titles in 2008--09. As the main attraction in his team's new $200 million stadium, Red Bull Arena, Henry is making soccer relevant in the New York area for the first time since the Cosmos' heyday more than 30 years ago. After 14 seasons of comical futility in MLS, New York was in first place in the Eastern Conference with one game left in the regular season, with a chance to win its first trophy when the playoffs start on Oct. 28.
"Everybody has been having jokes about this team before," says the man nicknamed Titi, who has two goals and three assists in 11 games with the Red Bulls. "You don't want to be a part of the jokes. You want people to say the Red Bulls compete to win. I think this is a team that can win a championship."
All things considered, it made sense for Henry to start his New York adventure this year. His high salary and the emergence of younger players had made him expendable at Barcelona, and his sterling French national-team career had ended on a down note. Henry drew global headlines last November when his uncalled handball led to the decisive goal that sent France to the World Cup at the expense of Ireland. And although he wasn't a central figure in the locker-room acrimony that helped send Les Bleus home from South Africa in disgrace, Henry was the player who had to meet French president Nicolas Sarkozy at the Élysée Palace afterward to explain it.
"Now people can understand how powerful soccer is in Europe," says Henry, France's alltime leading scorer. "You wouldn't see that for any other sport. Everybody wants to know what happened. I understand the passion, the sadness, the joy, the screaming, the cursing sometimes. But it's crazy."
Henry played in four World Cups for France, winning in 1998 and reaching the final in 2006, but his international retirement means he can focus entirely on the Red Bulls. That's no small thing. Beckham has played in only 51 of the Galaxy's 111 league games since he joined MLS in July '07, not least because his desire to continue representing England caused him to engineer two in-season loans to AC Milan. "For me [Henry] is a very different kind of story," says Red Bulls general manager Erik Solér. "This is a guy who comes to the U.S. and wants to stay in New York. He doesn't have an ambition to go back and play in Europe. He doesn't want to play for the national team. And of course he's not married to a female superstar. Thierry wants to play for us and concentrate on the Red Bulls."
If his first two months are any indication, the Frenchman has been a perfect fit in the locker room. One day Henry showed up at the team's training site in Montclair, N.J., bearing a large box of iPads—gifts for the Red Bulls' backroom staffers. On the field he has shared his wealth of experience from having won the World Cup, Champions League and English and Spanish league titles alongside such teammates as Zinédine Zidane, Lionel Messi, Ronaldinho, Xavi, Samuel Eto'o, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira. "Our training sessions now are so much higher quality," says New York coach Hans Backe, crediting Henry and Mexican midfielder Rafael Márquez, another expensive midseason acquisition from Barcelona. "They make a huge difference on every possession."
No Red Bulls player has benefited more than Dane Richards, a 26-year-old Jamaican international whose reputation as an all-speed/no-skill winger has changed almost overnight. During Henry's second practice with the team, in July, the Frenchman pulled Richards aside and said, "Dane, with your speed, if I turn and play to you, nobody can catch you." Since then Richards has revealed a newfound poise when attacking the goal. "What he said gave me so much confidence," Richards says. "I scored that week and haven't looked back." After failing to find the net in the Red Bulls' first 20 league games this year, Richards has four goals in the past eight games, becoming one of the hottest scorers in the league. "The way Dane's playing, he's been the star," says Henry.