PORTLAND, Ore. — As Thierry Henry turned and clapped to the fans at Providence Park upon being substituted during the All-Star Game, the air was heavy with farewell. It certainly felt like the sport was saying goodbye to one of its legends.
Henry played 46 minutes in the MLS All-Stars’ 2-1 win over Bayern Munich on Wednesday, and he was the only player left on the field after halftime who started the match. Head coach Caleb Porter said after the game that taking him off separately from the other substitutions was exactly what Henry deserved.
“I felt he deserved that tribute at the start of the second half, no matter what his future is,” Porter said. “He’s been great for the league. He’s done a lot for the sport in this country and obviously, [he's] had a wonderful career.”
The ovation for Henry was louder than the reception for Julian Green when he came on as a 37th-minute substitute for Bayern, and louder than the crowd at Red Bull Arena when New York played Arsenal in July. All eyes have been on Green during the club’s tour of the U.S. as a beacon of potential, but Henry showed Wednesday that his style and class on the pitch is evergreen.
He made space for himself with his superior field awareness, constantly checking over his shoulders and remaining aware of his surroundings. As the ball came to him, he looked poised, holding defenders off with his back to goal and utilizing his deceptive change of pace.
Despite lining up as a left winger, he cut inside often, playing a free-wheeling type of role usually reserved for a No. 10. Never really able to turn off the competitive fire, Henry stayed his usual frosty self, gesticulating to teammates and admonishing them for misplayed passes.
In July, after he scored the equalizer in an eventual 3-1 loss to the Philadelphia Union, Henry turned to his defenders instead of celebrating and told them in a loud and inappropriate-for-print manner that he expected better from them. He’s been accused of being a bad teammate in similar situations in the past, but MLS viewers seem to have finally embraced his swagger and high standards.
“That’s me," Henry said. “[Without that edge], I’ll sit this one out, and that’s sometimes better than trying to go out there and not do the job … That’s just the way I play. Sometimes, it works. Sometimes, it doesn’t work.”
Simply put, even at age 36, Henry’s still got “it,” that powerful mixture of technical ability and mental acuity that allowed him to become a world-class striker. No stranger to quality opposition, Henry turned it on for one more game in front of an international audience.
If he does retire at the end of the season, Henry will leave the game seemingly with more left to give. That’s not because of his strength, speed or overall athleticism, but his soccer IQ that still allows him to match wits with Bayern Munich’s upstart young players, whose legs aren’t quite as heavy.
However, Henry was reticent to pull the plug on his career before the end actually comes.
“Maybe, maybe not," he said. “I don't know, I haven’t decided yet.”
He played the same cerebral game on Wednesday as the opposing coach and his former boss, Pep Guardiola, would want out of one of his players. The two also embraced and had a brief discussion after the full-time whistle.
“It was an honor for me to be his trainer,” Guardiola said. “We were together two years, and in my first year as a coach in Barcelona, he helped me a lot … I’m so happy for him still playing because he deserved the best. I trained one of the best players in the world.”
It’s easy to see Henry moving into management once his playing days are over. With mentors such as Guardiola and Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger, and an established philosophy ensconced in possession-based soccer and all the nuances that accompany it, he’s off to a great start.
As always, Henry only spoke of his desire to focus on the challenge at hand, whether that’s facing one more world-class opponent, making one more audacious volley attempt from distance as he did against Bayern or dribbling into the penalty area in MLS play once more, only to open his hips and calmly slot a shot into the goal in what has become his signature style.
“I don’t know about [coaching],” Henry said. “We’ll see. I’m still in the game. I’m not there yet.”