Enjoy Thierry Henry while you can
Hanging out in Portland on Tuesday and watching the All-Stars interact with each other and the press, I was left with one prevailing impression before Wednesday's game (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2): We're going to miss Thierry Henry when he's gone.
Henry has been in fine, scene-stealing form in Portland this week -- always at the center of the group, hamming it up in news conferences. On Tuesday afternoon, he even held forth about NBA crowds in Sacramento, Detroit and Portland to make a point about ... well ... it's not always clear what the point is, other that when Henry mentions the NBA he's usually in an expansive mood.
I once stood with a handful of reporters surrounding an exercise bike at Red Bull Arena as Henry, clad only in a towel and pedaling laconically, decided to break down the winning approach of the Miami Heat. Again, I'm not sure exactly what point he was making then, but the larger point was unmissable: I'm Thierry Henry and I'm speaking now until I stop.
His rhetorical style can be an extension of his late-career playing style: alternately supremely relaxed and slightly cantankerous, with no discernible difference in the circumstances that cause either. You're never sure what Henry you're going to get or when he's just going to be "in the mood," but when he decides that a day is going to be his day, or just that a moment is going to be his moment, he makes things happen with a kind of graceful inevitability that's unparalleled in Major League Soccer.
That sense of languorous pace is key to late-period Henry. These days we tend to take pleasure in watching him in a subtly enjoyable real time as opposed to in his Arsenal heyday, where his talent was sometimes best observed in the slow motion of replays watched slack-jawed after the fact. With an aging Henry, there are fewer mercurial flashes and more of the kind of "Wait a minute, I think he's going to ... let me get my phone ... how do you bring the camera function up again? ... I'm swiping ... OH NO HE DIDN'T!" type of goals, such as the impeccably tidy finish he knocked in against Real Salt Lake last week -- a perfectly weighted and placed shot after Henry had floated inexorably into a perfect position without wasting a joule of energy.
Coverage from MLS All-Star 2014:
- Parker: Henry should be cherished
- McIntyre: Merits of the All-Star Game format
- Davis: 2014 MLS midseason awards
- Carlisle: MLS Power Rankings: Week 21
- McIntyre: Dempsey discusses U.S. future
- Marshall: Torres enjoying the limelight
- Carlisle: MLS midseason report cards
- Parker: Cynics wrong about All-Star Game
- McIntyre: Familiarity gives All-Stars the edge
Given Henry's comments this week about the underrated, efficient virtues of Thomas Muller and Franck Ribery, his own application of intelligence, self-conservation and technique in situations in which blistering pace and improvisational instinct once made the difference are their own minor-key versions of his particular soccer genius. It's a genius that Henry persists in presenting as just part of the job.
It wasn't hard to see that in allying himself less with the high artisan's qualities of Ribery and Muller rather than the artistry of Ronaldo and Messi, Henry is self-conscious about what his own legacy might be, even if the abiding memories of him from London to New York have been individual moments when he's put his team on his back.
And having mentioned "real time" in relation to his current play, Henry has done real time in MLS at a time when the league is still, by global standards, very, very young. His four-year tenure is almost a quarter of the league's lifespan so far and indeed a significant period of his own career. There's something of a phantom-limb syndrome in the way British writers in particular want to treat players who leave for MLS as if their careers and history have just stopped. Yet for the players that history keeps accruing, sometimes almost to their surprise -- David Beckham and his journey from pioneer to heel to champion being the prime example.
"That's one thing you need to have -- a lot of history," Henry told me yesterday as we talked about the progress MLS has made in taking root in the U.S. and Canada. He's proud of his own contribution to the growing MLS story.
And he knows his history. From the start he embraced the MLS experience as only the contradictory Henry can -- with conspicuous humility ... like, more humility than anyone else ever could, and if anyone fancied "having a go" at having more humility, he'd have more, etc. He'd give the impression of a good student in his knowledge of the league's players and teams from an early stage in his time in MLS. His knowledge of what that history meant extended to fan culture. Sometime during his stay in New York, he began wearing a crudely hand-customized captain's armband in the colors of his team's former incarnation as the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. Because he knew how it would resonate and because he could.
I'd asked Henry at last year's All-Star Game about his reputation as a student of the league, and when we spoke yesterday the phrase came up again. Henry didn't quite agree with it (though then again he never quite agrees with anything put to him -- I've never met a man who makes competitiveness in the most innocuous of transactions such a point of pride), but he did acknowledge that "if you don't know the guys that you're playing against, then you're doing the wrong thing. Yeah, if you want to call it studying, yes, but I just call it one more thing."
And now there's a strong possibility we may not get to see many more "things" giving Henry an edge on the field. After the player's impressive 45-minute, string-pulling display against his beloved Arsenal a week or so ago -- a possible blueprint for how he might operate in a more withdrawn role in Wednesday night's All-Star Game -- Red Bulls global director of football Gerard Houllier suggested that Henry appears likely to retire after this season.
If that's true, and if tonight is the last league marquee event we see Henry in -- very possible, given the Red Bulls' playoff struggles in the last year of his contract -- I for one hope this is one of those nights when Henry takes it upon himself to remind us, for even a moment, that he is Thierry Henry, and that he is playing now, until he stops.
Graham Parker writes for ESPN FC, Grantland, The Guardian US and Howler. He covers MLS and the U.S. national teams. Follow him on Twitter @KidWeil.