It is that time of year again in the MLS – the contenders have been cut down to a final four and the Conference Finals loom. After a gruelling campaign, there is light at the end of the tunnel with the MLS Cup now within sight.
Bizarrely, at a time when the MLS is building towards an exciting future with a string of new franchises set to join the league, “retirement” has been a buzz word during the 2014 playoffs. Los Angeles Galaxy’s Landon Donovan has announced that this is his final season and, more recently, there is a growing possibility that Thierry Henry could be about to bring down the curtain on his illustrious playing career.
That said, the messages coming out of the New York Red Bulls camp have been mixed and confusing. Gerard Houllier, the club’s head of global football, had confirmed that Henry would not be returning for the 2015 season. An abrupt u-turn then saw Houllier explaining that a decision had not been made. There was even talk of a new one-year contract being on the table.
Henry, his Red Bulls team-mates and his manager, Mike Petke, have skillfully side-stepped the question so far, citing an unwavering focus on extending their playoff run. “I can’t talk about it”, Henry explained recently. “It’s playoff time. The focus should be on the team and nothing else.”
It is not lost on the Frenchman that silverware would further cement his place in the history books – both for his club and for the MLS overall. "It would be very special for me to help this team win its first championship", he admitted last week.
On that front, Henry is already up against it. While the Red Bulls edged past DC United 3-2 on aggregate to set up a showdown with the New England Revolution for Eastern Conference supremacy, the first leg on 23rd November did not go to plan, with a 2-1 defeat at home. Now worries of an exit loom. The Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders are contesting the Western Conference Final – and both would be tough MLS Cup opponents – with the Galaxy winning the first leg 1-0.
As hard as the Red Bulls try, questions about Henry’s future plans are likely to continue to dominate, whether he likes it or not. Just to add another subplot to the mix, the Frenchman has been battling nagging pain in both Achilles (he missed the last game of the regular season to rest) and is unlikely to be thrilled about the prospect of playing on artificial turf in New England for the return leg. However, reports that he might sit out the second leg seem far-fetched given the Frenchman's competitive drive.
Henry’s CV needs little padding; his legacy is assured. After bagging the full set of domestic trophies in England with Arsenal and a World Cup and European Championship double with France, he added a Champions League winners’ medal as part of a star-studded Barcelona side. He had his moments of petulance and did not always show the best sportsmanship in defeat, but he belongs right alongside the best players of his generation. On his day, in the midst of his prime, he was unstoppable.
And he has aged gracefully – it is hard to believe that Henry joined the Gunners more than 15 years ago as a fresh-faced winger. He has embraced his time as a member of the Red Bulls and any player that plies his trade in London, Barcelona and New York for the majority of his career is clearly a wise man.
An MLS Cup, or the lack thereof, will certainly not shift opinions on Henry. But one last piece of silverware would put a neat bow on the Frenchman’s career. He has built a compelling case for being the most talented player in MLS history and, like David Beckham before him, it is hard to imagine the league expanding at such a pace without his contributions.
It remains to be seen whether this month, or the next, provides the last sighting of Henry in competitive action – but, if that proves to be the case, he has been a pure joy to watch and he will leave fans around the world with countless memories.