French soccer star Thierry Henry signed with the New York Red Bulls last week, becoming Major League Soccer's most high-profile acquisition this side of David Beckham. But while Beckham's A-list celebrity status has drawn attention from Americans who don't even care about soccer (read: teenage girls), New York hopes that Henry will attract a different group: soccer fans in the U.S. who have yet to embrace MLS. Gotham-area f√∫tbol fans are a spoiled lot, having enjoyed Pelé, Franz Beckenbauer and Giorgio Chinaglia during the glory days of the New York Cosmos three decades ago, but the 14-year history of their MLS franchise has been a miasma of second-rate players and chronic futility (zero major trophies).
That may finally be changing. In March the team opened the 25,000-seat Red Bull Arena, a $200 million palace in Harrison, N.J., that instantly became one of the most advanced soccer stadiums in the Americas. Henry brings an impeccable résumé: Arguably the finest striker in the 18-year history of the English Premier League, he scored 226 goals in eight seasons with Arsenal and has won the World Cup, the European Championship, the Champions League and five domestic league titles.
The main question is this: Will Henry, who turns 33 next month, play more like the force who helped lead Barcelona to six trophies two seasons ago, or will he be more like the injury-slowed Bar√ßa bench-warmer of last season? At his best, Henry would produce highlight-reel goals at a rate far exceeding that of Beckham, and while Henry may have lost a step, his speed and technical ability should set him apart from anyone in MLS not named Landon Donovan. As Beckham has learned, though, you have to earn your credibility on the field in MLS by winning. If Henry can bring long-awaited trophies to New York and show U.S. soccer fans that MLS is shedding its minor league status, then his next 4½ years in America will be a success.