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Henry brings cachet to New York

Major League Soccer's worst-kept secret became official Wednesday when the Red Bulls and MLS finally shined the big, bright light on Thierry Henry's long-silhouetted figure.

In the 32-year-old French international, MLS has turned up one of the few figures who can transcend the sports universe. Henry may not exactly land with a David Beckham-like publicity bounce as he makes the media rounds this week, but he's not that far from it. Maybe we can call his impact "Beckham lite."

Or, we can call it the Gillette Effect. Henry is a part of well-worn commercial for the razor blade maker, a spot that also includes the iconic Tiger Woods and tennis giant Roger Federer. So, it's not only sports fans who might recognize Henry's mug, and that's the true value in Wednesday's signing.

So this is a big day for Major League Soccer. For supporters of the game, Henry is a recognized soccer property who instantly adds to MLS stores of credibility. In that way he may be even more valuable than Beckham, who was frequently viewed as too far past his prime when he boarded the MLS bus in 2007.

While it may be true that Henry lost his place at Barcelona last year, he did have world class talent playing in front of him. So his competitive impact could be significant.

But the bigger value is in making heads turn among non-soccer fans or tepid supporters, attracting attention from folks who don't mind looking at a pretty face.

Take a look at Henry's busy schedule for Thursday: He'll appear bright and early on Univision's national morning show. (His ability to speak Spanish puts Henry in front of another important target audience for MLS, Latinos.) From there he'll quickly move across town to appear on Good Day New York. Later that morning he'll tape a segment for the CBS Early Show, and so on it goes. The day is scheduled to end with an appearance on NBC's Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

How many MLS players this side of Beckham or Landon Donovan would get that kind of media play?

Locally, the Red Bulls need such a presence to make some noise in the nation's most heavily saturated media market. And even if the former Arsenal and Barcelona man is a little past his prime, he still has enough skill and speed in those French feet to put a scare into MLS defenses.

Henry is technically available to play Saturday at Crew Stadium against Eastern Conference leading Columbus. More likely he would get time the following week during a pair of high-profile exhibitions at Red Bull Arena, against Tottenham and Manchester City.

Shep Messing, the former Cosmos goalkeeper and current Red Bulls television analyst, says the New York market is tough, and warns that even a great signing like Henry cannot automatically fill up that terrific new arena in Harrison. He's seen a lot of bungling in his time around the league's most visible franchise, and says the people in place now are solid; he says Red Bulls management has a firm grasp on reality and will know how to maximize Henry's presence.

"I know this market as well as anyone, but I have no idea what this will mean in terms of attendance," Messing said. "People in New York know who he is, but I just don't know what that's going to mean at the gate. ... But the people here are looking at it the right way. They are looking at it like another step in right direction."

There can be no question that Henry will cause PR ripples beyond the typical soccer media circles. When an NBA Most Valuable Player is talking about it, there's surely some juice there.

Steve Nash spoke to reporters last Saturday at the Red Bulls contest. The two-time NBA Most Valuable Player noted that Henry was "a world-class star" who continues to play at the highest level. That may be a tiny stretch, as Henry was a bit of a forgotten man at Barcelona last year and not a starter on France's failed World Cup team -- hence the Spanish giants essentially released Henry to go do whatever he wanted.

Still, the fact that Nash and Henry run in the same crowd says something. Henry has played in Nash's charity soccer games in New York and they have other mutual connections. (Nash, in addition to being an NBA star, is a well-known soccer supporter and a minority owner in the Vancouver club.)

"It's a big coup for Red Bull," Nash said.

It's especially big if Henry can produce on the field. Because anybody who can help overcome this franchise's losing legacy can surely ensconce himself in the heart of regional soccer supporters. And since Henry has Euro cred, he even has the opportunity to appeal to fans who previously followed only European soccer, who usually wouldn't bother with MLS even if admission and free hot dogs were provided.

So, where will the man who struck 174 times over nine years previously at Arsenal line up for the Red Bulls? New York coach Hans Backe has said that he needs to see Henry in training and spend time with him before deciding. Obviously the manager has seen Henry play and knows what the French international is all about. What he wants is to hear from team leaders and Henry himself; Backe understands the importance of making sure everyone feels involved, and he understands the danger of forcing round pegs into square holes.

Henry could play as a striker alongside Juan Pablo Angel, in a free role behind Angel or even as a playmaker a little deeper back in the midfield. Where Henry ends up could also depend on the Red Bulls' next move as the team continues to negotiate with a third possible Designate Player. The name of Mexican international Rafael Márquez keeps coming up, although nothing official has come from MLS or Red Bull management.

"I have the utmost confidence that Hans Backe is going to assimilate him into the team, where to play him, how he best fits, and also where the next step is, because he's already thinking about it," Messing said.

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