Now the biggest, never-ending story in Major League Soccer has reached its climax, one thing about the Thierry Henry pursuit may bear mentioning:
Thierry Henry is not David Beckham. Even when you squint, they barely look alike.
Most of you who've made it this far know Henry's acquisition is not the magnitude of Beckham's, but the point bears repeating. After a year of New York media speculation (to the extent "New York media" applies to Red Bull) and desperate hand-wringing from Red Bull supporters (that was placated with a new arena and a decent team), the build-up to this announcement could fool some into thinking this is the next Beckham-level acquisition.
This is the next acquisition. Stop. This is not Beckham-esque.
There may be a number of Red Bull fans who feel me raining on their parade, but it's an immutable law of media that something falsely lofted on a pedestal sits as an easy target to knock-down. Were the Henry acquisition not unduly lauded nobody would need point out that he hasn't been that good of late (four goals last season), he doesn't carry near the star appeal of Beckham (but who does), and with his current form, acquiring him carries little of the coup of persuading Becks to leave Real Madrid (after being part of their title-winning team).
Three years later, you can argue that Beckham, three years Henry's senior, is the better player; at least, he may be better regarded at the highest levels of the game. Whereas AC Milan and England bent-over-backwards to get Beckham in their sides before an ankle injury ended his season (and ruled him out of the World Cup), neither Barcelona nor France have had much use for Henry over the past four months.
But this is all a bit of a red herring. Few would argue that the Henry signing is equivalent to Beckham. My argument is that it's not even close, something I feel others are attempting to say. If you look across all meaningful vectors - impact, recognizability, difficult of signing (Henry has Caribbean roots), level of play - Henry is nowhere near Beckham. He is so far off Beckham that we should change the subject of the conversation.
Rather than evoking Beckham, Henry's acquisition reminds me of the Hristo Stoichkov in 2000. The Bulgarian international, who starred in the 1994 World Cup in the States, was two years removed from saying goodbye to Barcelona when, at 34, he came to Chicago. He had just finished a two season stint in Japan, playing in only 11 of Kashiwa Reysol's 30 matches in 1999 before coming stateside. Still close enough to 1994 for the Bulgarian to be recognizable in the U.S. market, the move looked to be the last in a storied professional career.
For Chicago, Stoichkov saw an immediate up-tick in form, scoring nine goals in 18 games while contributing to the MLS Cup finalists. He would play three more seasons in MLS, concluding his career in 2003 with five goals in 21 matches for D.C. United.
Like Stoichkov, Henry comes to MLS at a career low, and like Stoichkov, Henry looks set to rejuvenate his career in the States. Where the Bulgarian former-Barcelona star made it to the MLS Cup in his first season stateside, the acquisition of another ex-Barcelona star could see the 2008 finalists return to the league's title match.
Henry may not be David Beckham on-or-off the pitch, but after a disastrous 2009 season played under the dim light of an eventual Henry deal, Red Bull supporters don't need him to be. A good helping of Stoichkov may be all Hans Backe and team need to become contenders.