Photo by Howard C. Smith/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
Whether it is by adding another offensive piece or resting Thierry Henry more often, the New York Red Bulls need to find ways to help lift the offensive load off their captain’s shoulders in 2014.
Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke said in his end-of-the-season conference call on Wednesday that Henry is still a talented enough player to build around despite being 36 years old. But Petke also made it abundantly clear that the club is going into the offseason needing figure out how to manage Henry’s minutes next year, a year that will see New York compete in the MLS regular season, U.S. Open Cup, and CONCACAF Champions League.
That’s an awful lot of competitions and games for an aging veteran in what could be his final season as a professional, especially considering that he already showed signs of slowing down in 2013 despite still showcasing his ability to produce magical moments.
“Thierry is our captain and he’s by far one of the, if not the best, players in this league in his best moment,” said Petke. “We have him next year, he’s still under contract, we’re thrilled to have him back. He’s been reenergized and refocused and I think that Thierry is and perhaps will be until he’s gone the focal point of this team because what he can bring at any given moment.”
While there is no denying Henry can produce jaw-dropping soccer that is as close to technical perfection as you might find in MLS, the numbers from 2013 don’t lie. Henry had his least productive full season in MLS this year, scoring 10 goals and assisting on nine others despite starting and playing in more regular season matches than ever before.
Those statistics are nothing to scoff at and most MLS teams can only dream of having someone of Henry’s caliber spearheading their attack, but there were a few occasions in 2013 when the Frenchman uncharacteristically shot wide on chances he’d normally put away with a clinical strike. No, no one forward is ever going to be perfect in front of goal and missing chances is part of the sport, but Henry managed to only place 29 of 92 regular season shots on frame, his lowest percentage since joining the Red Bulls in 2010 by far.
Fatigue may have played a part in that, and that is why it is so crucial for Petke and his coaching staff to come up with a solution on how to properly manage their star player’s minutes in what will be a busy 2014. Henry may indeed still be capable of leading an offense but he cannot do it all by himself, not anymore.
“He definitely falls into a category of somebody I need to sit down with and figure things out for all the competitions we have next year and all that travel that’s going to entail,” said Petke. “This year was very tough for me to take him off the field, because of what he brings. I remember two games we had, conference games actually this year, and after the game chatting with the other coach who I know and just comments they would make like, ‘It’s unbelievable just having a Thierry Henry on your team.’ You could see in my guy’s eyes was a little bit of fear.
“That’s a credit to Thierry, so that’s the reason why it was tough for me to take him off in my first year because I know in any given moment he could be that spark and he was for many moments this year. To go back to what I said, starting next year with all the competitions, we’re going to have to figure out the right managing of minutes for not only him but a couple of players.”
What are some possibilities to help alleviate Henry’s workload next year without sacrificing too much offense? One option could be to give more minutes to Bradley Wright-Phillips, the 28-year-old forward who signed in midseason and showed flashes of being a solid attacking weapon for the Red Bulls before a hamstring injury derailed his season a bit.
Wright-Phillips may not be as magical as Henry, but the Englishman provides speed, strength, savvy and a strong work ethic. All those attributes could suffice to make for a more than capable replacement in the Red Bulls’ front line.
Another option for New York? Filling its vacant third Designated Player slot with someone capable of playmaking and scoring.
“First and foremost, we need a creative type player, whether it be an attacking midfielder or just someone that can play in the midfield,” said Petke. “We need someone who can thread those passes, and we have guys that are capable and hard-workers, but we don’t have that true attacking link-up type of player. Obviously, we’ll be looking for that.”
Regardless of which route the Red Bulls ultimately take, it is clear that keeping Henry’s legs fresh in 2014 is a priority. Not only because it will be key to any success they wish to have in MLS, but in the other competitions as well.