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Thierry Henry has captured the most important trophies in soccer, from the World Cup, the European title and the Champions League to the domestic crowns in England, France and Spain. He's one of the sport's living legends, a player whose bronze statue, knee-sliding in celebration, rests outside of Arsenal's Emirates Stadium in London, just as Michael Jordan's soaring likeness welcomes visitors to the United Center in Chicago. But when it comes to the club game, the alltime leading scorer for Arsenal and France holds an opinion that may knock you off your chair: Winning a championship in MLS, where he has played since 2010 for the New York Red Bulls, is more difficult than in any league in Europe.
"It's harder," says Henry, 35. "Way harder. [In Europe], I didn't have to tell [ex--Arsenal and France teammates] Robert Pirès or Patrick Vieira what to do, so I was concentrating on what I had to do. I'm not having a go at anyone; I'm just saying that it's easier to have guys who know exactly what it takes."
MLS has far to go before reaching commissioner Don Garber's recently stated goal of becoming one of the world's best leagues by 2022, but Henry reports that over his two years Stateside he has seen the quality of play improve along with the infrastructure. In fact, MLS may be the planet's most competitive league. A low salary cap, strict roster limits and an American-style draft promote a parity unseen in England or Spain, where only a handful of superwealthy teams can realistically hope to win a title. Of late, MLS owners have loosened the reins a bit, allowing for heavier spending on international stars such as Henry and the now-departed David Beckham, but the challenge is clear.
Progress aside, Henry's transition from Barcelona to the Red Bulls has at times been like a postcrash Wall Street banker switching from caviar and Cristal to buffalo wings and Budweiser. Yet he remains hungrier than ever to win a championship, and he still brings it on the field. In an SI preseason survey of 18 MLS stars, Henry was the clear choice as the league's most respected player, as well as the one most would pick first if they were starting a team from scratch.
Henry is just one reason the Red Bulls are MLS's most intriguing team at the start of the league's 18th season, which kicked off last weekend. (New York opened with a 3--3 draw with Portland.) Consider these questions facing the club: Can a rookie American coach, Mike Petke, mesh with one of the world's preeminent players of the last 20 years? Can an entirely new front office, with Europeans in the top three positions, generate for Red Bull the type of buzz in soccer that the outfit has mustered in Formula One, Alpine skiing and high-altitude parachute jumps? And, most crucially, is this finally the year for a chronically underachieving—some would say cursed—New York franchise (born as the MetroStars in 1996, bought by Red Bull in 2006) that remains the only one of MLS's surviving original nine teams never to have won a competitive trophy? The Gotham fan base has endured 17 years of futility despite having employed World Cup--winning players (Lothar Matthäus, Youri Djorkaeff, Henry) and managers (Carlos Alberto Parreira), a bevy of international stars (Roberto Donadoni, Juan Pablo Angel, Rafa Márquez), numerous U.S. national team stalwarts (Tab Ramos, Tim Howard, Clint Mathis, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore) and three former U.S. national team coaches (Bora Milutinovic, Bob Bradley, Bruce Arena).
"Wherever we go, we hear the same chant: 'Seventeen years and no cups!'" says midfielder Dax McCarty, the Red Bulls' best U.S.-born player. "And I'm getting sick of it. I think we have, on paper, the most talent an MLS team has seen in a long time. We have guys who've played well in our league and internationally. But individuals don't win championships. In this league that's been proven year in and year out."
"People like to focus on individuals, but L.A. has a good team," says Henry, rattling off the entire lineup of the back-to-back champion Galaxy with impressive familiarity. (Teammates say that Henry has an encyclopedic knowledge of MLS clubs, a sign that he cares.) "That's the type of consistency we need to find. At Arsenal and Barcelona we were good because we had a good team, not two or three players. You will never win anything with that."
Mike Petke rests both hands on his knees, leaning into an interview in much the same way he leaned into opposing forwards during a career at defender that saw him play more games for New York than anyone else in team history. Long Island born and bred, the 37-year-old comes at you head-on. Always has. "Let's break it down," he says. "I am the head coach of possibly the most high-profile team in the league, especially now that Beckham has left L.A. This is the biggest city in the country and a team that's never won a championship. I have zero head-coaching experience. Obviously, there is a s---load of pressure. I understand that."
And yet Petke smiles. An MLS lifer, he knows he was not an expected or conventional choice to lead the Red Bulls, who've already employed eight other coaches since 2000. Not when team management had showed every indication of tabbing a European. Not when Petke had only two years of experience as an assistant. And certainly not when the New York roster includes players with extensive European pedigrees, like Henry, former Everton star Tim Cahill and ex-Lyon maestro Juninho.