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 Pir√®s 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 Matth√§us, Youri Djorkaeff, Henry) and managers (Carlos Alberto Parreira), a bevy of international stars (Roberto Donadoni, Juan Pablo Angel, Rafa Màrquez), 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.
Eventually, though, Petke won over the Europeans who've been installed atop the Red Bulls in the last eight months: new sporting director Andy Roxburgh, an amiable Glaswegian (he's close to Sir Alex Ferguson and José Mourinho) who managed Scotland at the 1990 World Cup and who served as UEFA's technical director for the past 18 years; new G.M. Jér√¥me de Bontin, a French former president of AS Monaco and Amherst alum whose job it is to start filling Red Bull Arena, the club's sparkling $200 million stadium; and Red Bull's new Head of Global Soccer, Gerard Houllier, a former French national team manager and the driving force behind the youth development boom that led to France's '98 World Cup title. Of supreme importance, it was Houllier who coached Henry to the European Under-18 title in '96.
"The first time I saw Thierry, I made him captain and we won against the Germans," Houllier, 65, recalls of the teenager. "He had what I call international quality: the power, the speed and the technique to beat players." Houllier would go on to manage Liverpool, Lyon and Aston Villa, and last July he took over Red Bull's five world soccer outposts: academies in Ghana and Brazil, and teams in Austria, Germany and New York. He is expected to have his biggest impact on the MLS team's youth academy.
In the end, two factors led to Petke's surprise ascension from interim coach in January, two months after Hans Backe was fired. For one, he impressed Roxburgh with the way he led practice sessions. But just as important, none of the European candidates for the job (a list that reportedly included Scotland's Gary McAllister and Portugal's Paulo Sousa) would commit by the time preseason training started. Petke was the last man standing. "He's enthusiastic and very passionate," says Houllier, who'd favored going European. "So Andy said, 'Why don't we give him a chance?'"
"Mike is a local hero," Roxburgh says of Petke, a firebrand who played eight seasons (and sported at least as many hairstyles) with the MetroStars and Red Bulls. "There are many examples of coaches who've done well coming from within. He's dedicated to the club and knows everything that's going on, plus he knows MLS. That was a major factor."
In many ways, Petke's appointment makes sense. MLS history is littered with failed big-name coaches from overseas (Parreira and Carlos Queiroz in New York; Ruud Gullit in L.A.) who grew frustrated with the league's restrictive rules and either left or were fired. The most successful managers have been Americans like Arena, Seattle's Sigi Schmid and Houston's Dominic Kinnear—shrewd managers who know the league and how to build teams with what's available.
At the same time, Petke's light résumé, the recent front-office turnover and Houllier's deep ties to Henry have prompted questions about how much influence Henry is wielding behind the scenes. There's always a risk in giving too much power to a star player, as the Galaxy learned when Beckham's best friend and personal manager spearheaded the team's coaching search in 2008. (The Galaxy initially imploded, only to recover when Arena took over.)
To hear those involved, Henry has significant influence but by no means decision-making control. When asked what Henry first told him about the Red Bulls, Houllier recalls his fellow Frenchman saying, "We need professionalism. Coach, you should come and change things around. It's just a shambles. We've managed to get some results, but we can do better." Sure enough, by the end of the 2012 season, after New York was eliminated in the MLS quarterfinals, both Backe (who in his tenure had led New York to finishes of first, fifth and third in the East) and sporting director Erik Solér were out. All told, 16 players from last year's team have been jettisoned. And two important off-season acquisitions, forward Fabiàn Espíndola and defender Jàmison Olave, came from Real Salt Lake, a team that Henry has openly admired for its style and success. (Espíndola and Olave accounted for all three goals on Sunday.)
Last summer, months before Roxburgh took over as sporting director, he flew from a vacation in Florida to meet Henry in New York. "He told me about some of the complexities of the league and the issues, the kinds of things he would like to see happening at the club," Roxburgh says. "He's a very proud professional. He's not a guy who wants to be in a context where he thinks we're playing exhibition games." Yet while Roxburgh acknowledges that he now meets regularly with Henry, Cahill and other senior players for input, the Scotsman stresses that "they rightly recognize they don't make decisions."
Petke, for his part, says he's well aware of the perception that "Thierry picks the team" and maintains that's not the case. And he's O.K. with the visible frustration that Henry has shown toward his teammates when he's been unhappy with their play. "His explosions, his competitiveness—those are the qualities I love about him," Petke says. "They might boil over in practices and games, but I look at guys like Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Kobe Bryant, and they all have similar qualities. Do I want a nice guy or someone who's going to lead by example and push other players? For me, it's easy. Get the ball to the best players on the field. And Thierry is the best player on the field."
During a break in training camp last month, Henry was watching a montage of Jordan's greatest moments when he caught something: His Airness never cracked a smile. The trophies were never enough; Jordan always wanted more. And to Henry, that feels relatable—it's why a man who has won so much hardware cares so deeply about delivering New York its first MLS Cup trophy.
"This is a challenge I knew would be hard," Henry says. "But I love it, and if we win [the league], I will be damn happy for the organization and the fans because they've been suffering for a very long time. Trust me."
Of course, he's not smiling either.
"Coach, you should come and change things," Henry told Houllier of his team. "It's just a shambles."
To find out where Henry's Red Bulls fall in Avi Creditor's MLS Power Rankings (which last week had 2012 runner-up Houston ranked No. 1 before a 2--0 win over D.C. United) visit SI.com/mag
Grant Wahl's forecast for the 2013 MLS season
1 Los Angeles
2 San Jose
3 Real Salt Lake
7 FC Dallas
9 Chivas USA
1 Sporting K.C.
3 D.C. United
4 New York
8 New England
10 Toronto FC
In the West, L.A. has the talent to become the first MLS team to three-peat, even with the departure of David Beckham and the self-imposed sabbatical of Landon Donovan. This is now Robbie Keane's team. And look for Portland to become a surprise playoff qualifier under new coach Caleb Porter, while the heat will get turned up in soccer-mad Seattle if the Sounders can't put together a title run under Sigi Schmid. In the East, Graham Zusi--led K.C. will continue its habit of dominating the regular season only to fall to Houston in the playoffs. For the third straight year, we'll most likely see a Houston-L.A. final, only this time the Dynamo will raise the MLS Cup.
Grant Wahl's five MLS pitch plotlines for 2013
Can San Jose's Chris Wondolowski keep up his scoring pace?
The reigning MVP has 61 regular-season goals in the last three years, the most by an MLS player over any such period. Now that Wondo is a designated player, making $600,000 this season with the Earthquakes, he'll be expected to bag another 20 goals for a team seeking the league's best record again.
Whither Landon Donovan and Freddy Adu?
Just back from a 10-day self-discovery trip to Cambodia, Donovan has been on an unpaid sabbatical from the Galaxy since November, trying to rediscover the hunger that has brought him five MLS titles. (He'll play in April.) Meanwhile, Adu is in limbo in Philadelphia: The Union doesn't want him but doesn't want to eat the entirety of his $1 million-plus guaranteed contract either.
Can an MLS team finally reach the FIFA Club World Cup?
Back in 2010, the league named it a priority to have one of its teams win the CONCACAF Champions League and qualify for the Club World Cup—but it hasn't happened yet. Three teams have a chance, with the CCL quarterfinals starting this week: Houston, L.A. and Seattle. I give L.A., with Robbie Keane and the easiest opponent, the best odds.
Will Chivas USA continue to be an embarrassment to the league?
Under erratic owner Jorge Vergara, L.A.'s other club adopted a hard-line Spanish-language theme in the off-season, shedding non-Hispanic players at fire-sale prices—but hardly any fans bothered to show up at last week's home opener, a 3--0 loss in front of 7,121 people. It's time for the league to get involved.
In the end, will the regular season really matter much?
Last year's MLS Cup final featured teams with the eighth- and ninth-best records. It's time to give lower-seeded playoff teams a harder hill to climb. Here's one way: Hold an eight-team group stage organized like the Confederations Cup, with the top seed in each group hosting all three of its group games and the bottom seed hitting the road for each one.
DIFFICULT TRANSLATION Starting his third full MLS season, Henry says the idiosyncrasies of the league make it one of the toughest in the world in which to fashion a championship.
BRUCE ELY (RED BULLS)
BULLS ON PARADE The Red Bulls' investment in Olave paid off on Sunday as the former MLS Defender of the Year (far left, with Henry and Cahill) put New York up 3--1 early. Alas, Petke's sideline leadership wasn't enough to prevent another Red Bulls collapse, and the Timbers fought back for a draw.
BRUCE ELY (PETKE)
[See caption above]
STEVE DYKES (WONDOLOWSKI)
RICH SCHULTZ/GETTY IMAGES (ADU)
GARY A. VASQUEZ/USA TODAY SPORTS (KEANE)
CHRISTOPHER HANEWINCKEL/USA TODA (DAN KENNEDY)