The King retires

When it came to following sports, soccer, for a long period of time, was not my favorite.  Hockey, especially living in Metro Detroit and our proximity to Canada, with Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday night, was my original spectator sport.  Then the summer would dry out the champagne that had showered the Stanley Cup with a drought of the dull games of baseball and golf, until the North American Soccer League granted a franchise to Detroit.  The Detroit Express played at the Silverdome, and the magical skills of the man dubbed, “The Wizard” – Trevor Francis – lured me into an appreciation of the beautiful game.  No sooner was I attached to soccer it disappeared for almost as long as it took me to discover it.  If you’re a younger person reading this, we didn’t have the internet back then, or multi-channel cable or dish services.

In 1999, while on a family vacation to our nation’s capital, the spark was lit.  A friend living there took my son and I to a DC United match.  It took about five minutes for the gene that lie dormant within me to activate.  Soon, I was following Major League Soccer and discovered the Fox Soccer Channel and its coverage of the English Premiere League.

I couldn’t tell you exactly when it was, but there was a point in the early part of this century when the Arsenal Gunners became my English Premiere League team.  And it was because of Thierry Henry.

Henry was a scoring machine.  It reminded me of the way Trevor Francis had come over to America and dominated the Silverdome turf.  But Henry owned Highbury, and the rest of the teams’ pitches in one of the top leagues in the world.  He had pace, he controlled the ball well, and had a sense of where his teammates were to deliver quality passes, setting up goals as well.  There was a quiet flair about him that would burst forth with amazing plays and goals.  Then came The Invincibles.  In the 2003-04 season, Henry scored 30 goals as the Gunners went the full English Premiere League season undefeated, with a 26 win, 12 draw, 0 loss record, the only team to do so since Preston North End’s 18-4-0 invincible season of 1888-89.

After eight seasons and 226 goals in all competitions with the Gunners, Henry went to Spain to play three seasons with Barcelona, from 2007-2010.  Then, in the summer of 2010, he arrived on America’s shore, as a member of the New York Red Bulls.  Past his prime, but still a master of the art of football, Henry tallied 51 goals in 122 games with the Red Bulls.

April 7, 2012 was my first opportunity to see Henry live.  The Red Bulls were in Columbus to play the Crew – my Major League Soccer team.  My loyalties were divided.  I wanted Columbus to win by a score of 4-3 so that I could enjoy a Thierry Henry hat trick.  Giddiness hid behind my mature veneer as  I shot photos during the warm-ups.  I couldn’t help sharing the excitement with others who were taking photos, and having their friends/family take photos of them with Henry in the background, excited about the presence of the man with the world class talent.

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The game started, and I shot even more photos.  My seat was a just a couple rows back from the touch line between the center stripe and the top of the six yard box of the goal defended by the Red Bulls in the first half.    It only took three minutes for the magic to begin.  Henry had the ball down the right side, just inside the center stripe.  It was like looking over his shoulder as he lofted  the ball toward goal where Kenny Cooper had made his run, heading the ball past the Crew’s keeper, Andy Gruenebaum, to put the Red  Bulls ahead 1-0.  It was a moment of “wow.”  Just writing that flashes the image once again in my mind, sending shivers through me.  Henry scored twice in the game as well, as the Red Bulls defeated Columbus 4-1.

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I saw him play again the following summer in Columbus, where the Crew were able to keep Henry off the scoreboard, but not Tim Cahill, giving the Red Bulls a 1-0 win.  Since 2002, I have been to 12 games at Crew Stadium, and the only games Columbus lost were those two against Henry & New York.

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With him announcing his retirement today, I am especially grateful for having had the opportunity to attend a friendly at Red Bull Arena this summer between the New York Red Bulls and Arsenal.  Though the game ended as a 1-0 win by New York on a goal by Bradley Wright-Phillips (son of former Arsenal great, Ian Wright), to be in the place where my favorite English Premiere League team and my favorite soccer player displayed the beautiful game was priceless.

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Henry’s skill combined with an inspiring level of confidence is what I have admired about this man and his talent.  There are many American soccer fans who will be adjusting to Major League Soccer without Landon Donovan, who also hung up his boots at the close of this season.  For me, I will have to adjust to soccer without Thierry Henry’s mastery of the beautiful game.  He brought me back to soccer, the sport upon which the sun never sets.  Hockey?  What’s that?

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