Shep Messing calls them his guys. Pele, Franz Beckenbauer, Carlos Alberto. And don't forget Giorgio Chinaglia.
"My guys … " says the former New York Cosmos goalkeeper and current analyst on the MSG Network's New York Red Bulls telecasts, "… it was like watching genius."
Thierry Henry would have been one of those guys, too, had he played back in the day. But now he is the guy, just like David Beckham was the guy. Saturday afternoon at BMO Field, Henry and the Red Bulls will play a team, Toronto FC, that is in desperate need of a guy of their own. That and a win, which hasn't happened in a league game at BMO in more than a year.
Once the hottest ticket in town, TFC now plays in front of entire sections that are mostly empty; rows of seats waiting for somebody like, well, Diego Forlan. The 34-year-old Uruguayan striker was rumoured to be on the verge of signing with TFC – which is shedding payroll in a hurry, only adding to the sense of anticipation that something (or someone) significant is on the way to breathe life into a 2-10-7 team.
Forlan and his Brazilian team, Internacional, have denied a move is imminent but with new Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Ltd., chief executive officer Tim Leiweke talking big about a "significant signing," there's been no shortage of nudge-nudge, wink, wink.
On the other hand, TFC head coach Ryan Nelsen noted in an interview with the Canadian Press shortly after The Globe and Mail said a deal was close that it was important to ask: "Can our team handle a player of that calibre? Because one player isn't going to come in and all of a sudden you're going to win the league. We have to get the squad right."
Nelsen made clear his idea of balance was "young players with experienced players ... [then] you don't mind spending that money because there's a foundation."
The Red Bulls are themselves something of a cautionary tale. Henry is in his fourth season with the Red Bulls and he has yet to take the team to what would be its first title since Major League Soccer was formed in 1996. New York, in fact, is the only one of the original MLS franchises not to have won a trophy.
Henry has scored 38 goals in 77 games but the Red Bulls have turned over their entire roster since he joined them. Mike Petke, a 37-year-old former player, is the 14th head coach in club history.
Andy Roxburgh, who managed Scotland's national team to World Cup and Euro appearances, from 1986-1993 before joining UEFA as technical director, is the eighth general manager/technical director in Red Bulls history. Roxburgh has noted that one of the most successful imports of international talent in MLS history – the Los Angeles Galaxy's titles with Beckham and Robbie Keane – owe at least in part to the presence of young U.S. players such as Omar Gonzalez. That's what Red Bull is seeking to do.
In the meantime, Roxburgh admitted there's a value in having a cultured, attacking player such as Henry – a player adept both at playing in the forward position or dropping back; at reading the game and, in Roxburgh's words, "knowing when to lengthen a game … when to walk it and stop it," – as a part of the foundation.
Messing said there ought not to be a fear of incorporating a player whose talent set is so far above his teammates, as long as the player is aware of the reality of MLS.
"If a guy goes from Real Madrid to Juventus, it's not a cultural shock in terms of the level of play," said Messing, who lived large as a gap-toothed, afro-haired, hard-partying member of the star-laden Cosmos, posing nude for a women's magazine. "But the MLS is a real shock to the system. Thierry's blown me away because he's not afraid to take up the challenge of MLS – the challenge of teammates that aren't up to his own capabilities.
"I went through it, right," said the native of the Bronx who played seven seasons in the North American Soccer League, six seasons in the indoor circuit and was a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic team in Munich. "I mean, look at Pele. You can't think of a more gifted offensive player. There were times where you could see him with the ball, and you could tell he was thinking: 'Okay, there's maybe three guys I can pass to.' We weren't ready for him when he joined us, but you have to start some place.
"At some point you have to settle and build a roster, and whether a Diego Forlan is the first piece or the last piece, I'm not sure it matters. If you're not ready for a guy … well, what's wrong with making him your first piece?"