Fire

Henry crosses the pond, on his way to the Big Apple

Henry crosses the pond, on his way to the Big Apple

Wednesday, July 14, 2010
5:10 PM
By Justin O'Neil
CSNChicago.com

Los Angeles got their star in 2007. New York appears to have their star in 2010.

When David Beckham signed a five-year deal to move to the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, it made international headlines and shocked soccer insiders around the world. According to reports, the Empire State is getting their own world-class star, with French striker Thierry officially signing with the Red Bulls on Wednesday.

Beckham is a better-known name around the world, but true soccer fans will be more excited to see Henry moving across the pond. Henry is will simply be the best player in the U.S. since Brazilian legend Pele was with the New York Cosmos in the 1970s.

While it can be seen as fashionable to rag on Beckham, few would put the Englishman as the same class as Henry. Henry is one of the greatest players in soccer history: he led the 1998 World Cup Champions with three goals in the tournament, led the English Premier League in scoring four times, the Champions League in scoring twice, and was runner-up for the FIFA Player of the Year Award on two occasions while playing for Arsenal.

Henry was not great at the 2010 World Cup, but neither was any other Frenchman. The team imploded with the outgoing coach Crazy Ray Raymond Domenech feuding with captain Patrick Viera and sending striker Nicolas Anelka home after a locker room spat. Henry was one of the few members of the French team to come out with no blame, even meeting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy to discuss the meltdown.

While the results of the Beckham move have been mixed, including Beckham and teammate Landon Donovan trading barbs in the press, the move trained the international eye on the MLS like never before. When Beckham received a straight red card for a two-footed tackle last season, the league earned begrudging respect from the English press for not coddling Beckham and giving him special treatment.

Beckham and Donovan put the feud to bed since their rocky first season, and advanced to the MLS Cup Final last season, losing on penalties to Real Salt Lake.

Only Henry knows the true reasons for the move, but having won everything a footballer can hope to win, he is at a different stage of his life. He is no longer the captain of France after being reduced to coming off the bench for both his country and at FC Barcelona. At Barcelona, he is forced to play a more complimentary role because of the sheer class of the players around him.

He has for a long time been an admirer of the U.S. and New York, and is good friends with fellow Frenchman Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs. The move to the U.S. has been rumored for years.

Fans would be wrong to think the move is a cash grab by an aging star. Henrys salary and endorsements in Europe already make him one of the best-paid athletes in the world.

Henry turns 33 in August, the same age that Beckham made his move to the MLS. Henry should be reenergized by the move, and bring a winning mentality to the Red Bulls. Barcelona won its second consecutive Spanish League, and was knocked out in the semi-finals of the Champions League last month, a year after winning the competition.

Henry will be the main attraction at the brand-new Red Bull Arena, and be an integral part of the resurgent Red Bulls. He is the third European superstar to make the move to the MLS in the past three years. In addition to the Beckham move, Henrys former Arsenal teammate Freddie Ljungberg signed with the expansion Seattle Sounders last year.

The Fire made a big splash in 2007 when they signed Mexican star Cuauhtemoc Blanco. The midfielder was a good move both on the field and off it, drawing additional followers from the Mexican-American community, but Blanco left the Fire at the conclusion of the 2009 season.

The MLS allows teams to go above the salary cap with the designated player rule, which is how teams on relatively small wage budgets are able to sign international stars. With Blanco gone, the Fire are without a designated player, and seem to be the most logical destination for the next international star that wants to jump to this side of the pond. Both the Galaxy and Red Bulls now have two designated players, while the Fire has none.

Chicago is still searching for their identity, as they are currently fourth in the Eastern Conference with a 4-5-5 record. The team has talent and could make a playoff push, but without true star quality or an impressive breakthrough from the team academy, looks unlikely to compete for a title in the near future.

The Fire can and should be the next team to snatch a big-name. Whether it happens will come down to money, effort by the team, and the sheer luck of a star looking for a fresh start in a new place.

Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

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Playoff scenarios and scoreboard watching will permeate Sunday for Fire

The Fire will have to keep the travel itinerary open.

Heading into the final day of the regular season on Sunday, the Fire can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the Eastern Conference. As it stands, the Fire sit third and would host a first-game playoff game, but could also head on the road to New York in the first round or even earn a bye.

Depending on what the Fire do in Houston in the regular season finale and what happens elsewhere there are six possible scenarios for the Fire. The Fire could hold onto the No. 3 seed and host the New York Red Bulls, drop to fourth and host either Columbus, Atlanta or New York City FC, fall all the way to the No. 5 seed and travel to New York City or move up to the No. 2 seed and earn a bye into the conference semifinals.

In order to get the bye, the Fire must win and have NYCFC fail to beat Columbus. A draw in Houston would result in a home game in the first round, regardless of other results.

“Definitely things can happen,” defender Matt Polster said. “We’ve looked at it obviously. Columbus can do something and then we do something obviously things happen. It’s not that we don’t look at it as players, but at the end of the day we just want to win.”

Winning in Houston won’t be easy considering the team has an 11-1-4 record at home this season. On top of that, Houston is also fighting for playoff positioning. The Dynamo clinched a playoff berth last weekend and could move into a top four spot with a win and some help.

Expect the Fire to control the possession. Houston likes to play on the counter to utilize speedy attackers Alberth Elis (10 goals, 4 assists), Mauro Manotas (9 goals, 5 assists) and Erick Torres (14 goals, 3 assists).

“We know they’re fast up top so I think for myself, especially being very attacking-minded I definitely have to play a little bit more defensive and wait for the right opportunities to go forward,” Polster said. “Maybe more something like Montreal with (Ignacio) Piatti.”

The Fire’s midfield will still be shorthanded with Bastian Schweinsteiger expected to sit out to continue to rest his calf injury. Juninho returned to training this week after missing the past five games and could play next to Dax McCarty. The Brazilian described the injury as chronic with a bone bruise and some cartilage issues, but he said he feels 100 percent now.

All 11 MLS games on Sunday will start at 3 p.m. The Fire will be on NBC Sports Chicago with coverage starting with Fire Pregame Live at 2:30 p.m.

The other games of importance to the Fire are Columbus at NYCFC and Atlanta hosting Supporters’ Shield-winning Toronto. Coach Veljko Paunovic said he will be drawing on his experience coaching the Serbian Under-20s for how to handle the scoreboard watching aspect of the day.

“Obviously you cannot ignore what’s going on in the other games,” Paunovic said. “We know what we have to say or not say and when to say and all these things so it’s a craft that this job is.

“It’s good to know the information. Then you can manage it.”

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

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USA TODAY

Fire GM Nelson Rodriguez calls for 'honest self-reflection' of American soccer

American soccer is fresh off the crisis of missing the 2018 World Cup and there’s plenty of screaming and yelling about what should be changed and what needs fixing.

Everything from the leadership of the U.S. Soccer Federation, coach Bruce Arena, the players, Major League Soccer’s relationship with the national team to youth development is being questioned and criticised.

While MLS academies are still, relatively speaking, in their nascent stages (the Fire’s academy launched in 2007) and the fruits of their work are still being realized, the way players are developed in this country has come under fire. That makes a comment from Fire general manager Nelson Rodriguez from September 2016, just over two months before the final round of World Cup qualifying began, seem all the more relevant now.

“We’ve had organized soccer through a federation since 1913 and don’t have a male player who in my opinion is of world-class stature,” Rodriguez said. “And I mean no offense to all the great players who’ve represented U.S. Soccer, but my definition of world-class means any team in the world would want them. So that suggests to me that we need to do something differently. I think that the time is right to interject a different perspective. So I think having different experiences, different backgrounds in education and in the formation of young players is really important.”

This was in reference to the Fire hiring a foreign academy director, Frenchman Cedric Cattenoy. In light of the U.S.’s qualifying failure and this comment from a year ago, I asked Rodriguez if he thought there was something wrong in the way players are developed in this country. He began by talking about the “very holistic approach” that the team is trying to implement, on and off the field, but then he said something that stood out.

“I do believe there’s a difference between soccer and football,” Rodriguez said on Wednesday. “Some of that difference is rooted in time and tradition. Some of it is in how it’s taught and interpreted and I want us to teach, speak and play football.”

At first glance, this may come off as somewhat pretentious. Rodriguez is perhaps being snobby about the “soccer” being played in America vs. the “football” being played in the rest of the world.

Here’s the thing: it is pretentious, but it’s not wrong.

For all of its growth in stadiums, attendance, revenue and overall player quality, MLS is still a ways behind the top leagues in the world. After watching both, it doesn’t take long to notice the difference. When the top teams in the top leagues play, the game is faster, sharper, more dynamic and more entertaining.

That’s not to say MLS isn’t an entertaining product, but it can’t match a Champions League match at a world-famous stadium in front of 60,000-plus fans. MLS’ goal should be to get to that level, or at least get close to that level, even if it takes decades. In the meantime, players should learn and be taught the game at its highest level.

With the English Premier League, the German Bundesliga and the Champions League easily accessible on TV, young American soccer players can watch the game played at its highest level and idolize the game in that form. MLS is the more accessible avenue of the game, with the ability to attend a game in person and be part of a team’s academy being more available as the league continues to expand and academy setups become more comprehensive and sophisticated.

"What we need to do, all of us in the sport in America, is take a few moments of honest self-reflection and recommit to working in a more collaborative way instead of just trying to protect our little soccer fiefdom in our backyard and neighborhood," Rodriguez said. "(We need) all of us to work aligned so we can reach our goal, which is to get the men’s program at the standard and level of the women’s program, which is an Olympic champion and a world champion several times over."

Rodriguez wants the Fire’s academy and its players to “teach, speak and play football.” In a time when American soccer fans are feeling even more insecure than normal, it’s OK to embrace the pretentious nature of that statement. It’s for the best.