It's all about winning; how Thierry Henry can really help MLS

If Thierry Henry can help Red Bull win, you'll get more of these: fans. And more of these is what MLS needs, particularly in the nation's most important media market.

There’s some talk in the air about Thierry Henry’s arrival and what it means. I mentioned some of it yesterday, about the famous Frenchman’s ability draw attention to MLS. Rob Hughes of the New York Times wrote a piece this morning contending that Henry’s signing may be bigger than David Beckham’s because Henry is a better player at the time of his landing. I would argue that Beckham’s signing in the big picture had greater impact for several reasons, but I understand Hughes’ argument.

But something has been missing from the conversation, a variable that will weigh heavily in the final verdict of Henry’s success or failure here:

Will his signing help make Red Bull a better team, now and going forward?

This is a substantial issue. Because we can talk all day about marketing initiatives, about that fantastic new stadium in Harrison, about rail lines that feed the beast, about PR efforts and how Red Bull’s well-oiled corporate machine can maximally exploit his presence. But all that is just temporary. It’s like eating a wonderful dinner.  It’s delicious and you feel sated for now – but you’re damn sure going to need more to eat the next day.

Winning. That’s the deal.

That’s where the New York club, Major League Soccer’s most visible from a national media standpoint, has always left the tracks. Big stars have come and gone. Name brand coaches have wandered in and out. And yet the team has pretty much always stunk up the joint. (The "joint" in this case, was Giants Stadium, which never helped matters as we all know.)

 

Consider this unbelievable factoid: Three coaches who just managed teams in the World Cup have come and gone at New York, and none could be considered much of a success. Two others who have previously coached at a World Cup also directed the Red Bulls to points south on the success scale. Red Bulls all-time high-water mark: MLS runner-up in 2008.

Carlos Alberto Parreira (who just coached South Africa at the World Cup) finished 13-19 back in 1997. Carlos Queiroz (Portugal) went 12-12 after he took over for original coach Eddie Firmani. Bob Bradley (United States) went 32-31-21 in three years, which puts him second-best among 10 previous managers. (That doesn’t include Richie Williams, who has never technically held the post although he has been interim man twice.)

Neither have some fantastic players been able to drag the franchise out of the New Jersey swamp in terms of winning and losing.

Red Bulls management now seems to have things sorted out. I really like what Hans Backe seems to be all about. The team is well organized, the drafting and off-season acquisitions seem to be working at this point and he seems to have a long-range plan along with reasonable short-term expectations. The guy is solid.

And now they have Henry, who has plenty of motivation to urge himself forward. Henry was a forgotten man atBarcelona, and he’s coming off a French side that collapsed comically at the World Cup. So, there’s plenty of room for redemption ahead.

Henry doesn’t have to consistently tear apart MLS defenses. He just needs to be an effective attacker and a leader. (In terms of leadership, the man does, after all, have pretty much every trophy that matters in world soccer already on his personal mantel.) He needs to supply 7-8 goals over the team’s 15 remaining MLS matches. Juan Pablo Angel has nine (second best in the league) but two of those are on penalty kicks.  So, assuming Henry isn’t taking the spot shots, a total of 7-8 seems like a reasonable target. And 4-5 assists would be nice, as well.  Considering that New York is second in the East as it is, that should be enough to see Backe’s team safely into the playoffs. From there, the Red Bulls need to win a series.

Fans in the New York-New Jersey area need a winner to get behind. They’ve seen the bad stuff in a bad stadium (bad for soccer at least) for 14 previous seasons.

I had lunch yesterday with a small group that included Dallas Cowboys and former FC Dallas play-by-play voice Brad Sham. He reckons that a team needs to win a championship and then get a good start to the next year to really climb the next rung of organizational success. That sounds like a solid theory to me.

Henry can’t do what Beckham did in terms of impact and ability to increase awareness of MLS. Beckham is a bigger global brand, and he was "first to market" so to speak. 

But neither can Beckham accomplish what Henry can. Beckham can’t make the Red Bulls a better organization.

Red Bull Arena is a magnificent place. Put a winner in there and you’ll start seeing it more full. If it’s more full, New York media will begin paying more attention. Once New York media pays more attention, the cycle will spin and feed itself.

Marketing, business strategies, customer service, etc., those are always going to be important as MLS keeps building, keeps adding fans, keeps attracting sponsors and so forth. But nothing fills the bill like winning – and that’s where Henry can truly be an "impact player" in domestic soccer.

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