22 April ~ After a fairly miserable start to his career with RB New York in Major League Soccer, this has been Thierry Henry's coming out week. On Saturday he was booed by his own fans for missing a series of chances at home to San Jose. He finally headed his first goal of the season in the 87th minute and responded by demonstratively thumping the name on the back of his shirt. Then last night he and his team headed south to the US capital, and Henry casually took apart the DC United defence in the first 45 minutes with two competently taken goals, followed by a second half assist.
Together with Luke Rodgers, he forms one of the less likely striking partnerships of modern times. The former Barcelona and Arsenal French international works very nicely in tandem with the ex-Shrewsbury Town, Port Vale and Notts County forward, who was brought to New York by his former coach at County, Hans Backe. On Saturday, Henry laid on the second of Rodgers's two goals, and Rodgers returned the favour by later providing the cross that ended Henry's 684-minute scoreless sequence in MLS. This was the goal that prompted Henry to walk over to the NY support that had barracked him with an expression that said: "How ****ing dare you, eh?"
The duo is great fun to watch. Henry is the languid master, sending the ball near and far for his eager, scampering puppy to chase. Every now and again Henry places the ball in the net to encourage the little fellow and to show him how it's done. But this maybe fails to portray the genuine abilities of Rodgers as a forward who reads the game very well, holds the ball up superbly, can open up defences with his canny passing, and always makes the right kind of runs into space and into the penalty area.
Rodgers is speedy but scrappy, and contributed to Henry's second goal by standing in the way of DC defender Dejan Jakovic. Some would have called it obstruction, but this is MLS, where referees operate with at least one eye closed. Last night's official twice lectured Rodgers for what might be termed robust, over-enthusiastic play, but the 29-year-old puppy dog escaped without a caution. He was subbed off shortly before Henry set up a third goal, this time a lovely individual effort by Estonian Joel Lindpere.
Henry has complained of suffering from a long-term Achilles problem that has affected his play, but now that he seems to be finding his form, NY's corporate owners, Red Bull, will be hoping for the success they've been demanding from a series of coaches ever since they bought the club and re-branded it five years ago. Should Rodgers get injured or fall from grace (something that, given his track record, may involve a misunderstanding in a Manhattan night club in the early hours of a Sunday morning), there's plenty of talent to step up and replace him, such as his highly rated compatriot John Rooney.
Just kidding. Rooney's sole appearance to date was as a 90th-minute substitute last weekend, though he has notched one for the New York reserves. The real prospect on the bench is Colombian-born US national team player Juan Agudelo, who replaced Rodgers last night and lobbed in a very cheeky injury-time goal to make the final score 4-0 to New York. Agudelo, 18, has now scored two goals in MLS and two at international level, including one against Argentina.
In many respects, the Henry-Rodgers kind of pairing represents the old way of building a US domestic team – one is the ageing international star out for a new "challenge" (that is, "last pay check") and the other is a European journeyman who's lost his way in his homeland, and wants to make a new start. But with 18 teams, an ever-increasing profile and a slowly improving level of play, MLS is weaning itself off the need for shots of publicity that players like Henry and David Beckham provide, and is getting instead in the habit of making its own stories with its own personalities.
Like Agudelo, for example, who is a product of New York's academy system, and who reflects the new approach that MLS teams are taking to player development. This will eventually mean an end to the mainly moribund players recruited from the college system, who come to the league in their early 20s void of all flair through being subjugated by tactically stale coaching. This may also mean the recruitment of fewer players like Henry and Rodgers. For now, though, they're just two of several reasons why MLS is becoming a sporadically fascinating league to watch. Ian Plenderleith