Thierry Henry, the four-time English Premier League scoring champion, says he will sell soccer to New Yorkers by winning.
Henry signed with Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls this week. The 32-year-old striker was on the 1998 French World Cup winning team and has scored more goals than any player in London club Arsenal’s 97-year history.
He follows David Beckham -- the former English national team captain -- in coming to MLS. Beckham joined the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007, and helped the team reach the championship game last season, where it lost to Real Salt Lake.
“The most important thing for me is if the team plays well and we can manage to compete and contend for the title, then I would like to think the people would come along,” Henry said in an interview at Bloomberg’s headquarters in New York.
Henry will make his debut for the Red Bulls in an exhibition match against North London club Tottenham Hotspur on July 22 at Red Bulls Arena in Harrison, New Jersey.
Henry, who grew up outside of Paris, was signed by AS Monaco in 1990. He joined Italian Serie A team Juventus, where he played for one season before joining Arsenal, where he played until 2007. He had been with FC Barcelona since.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber said one of his biggest goals of adding Henry to the league, now in its 15th season, is to boost soccer in the area.
“He’s coming to the United States to hopefully help grow the game in our country, but very, very importantly in the New York and Metropolitan area, a market we’ve been challenged to build the sport for over the past decade,” Garber said in a telephone interview.
Red Bulls Attendance
League spokesman Sean Dennison said MLS doesn’t release attendance figures. The website MLS Daily says the Red Bulls are sixth out of 16 teams in league attendance, averaging 16,277 people per game this season, a 43 percent increase over last year.
Team spokesman Brian Tsao said in an e-mail that Henry’s signing increased ticket sales, but wouldn’t disclose how much.
While adding players like Beckham and Henry are helpful, MLS can’t solely rely on European players to boost its popularity, said Robert Tillis, managing partner of Inner Circle Sports LLC. The North American Soccer League attempted to build itself with foreign players, then folded in 1984.
“You can’t put all your eggs in the go buy lots of high- priced players basket and hope that it works,” said Tillis, whose firm advises sports franchises on major financial transactions. “We’ve seen that model before in soccer and it didn’t work.”
Garber said Beckham, who is out for the season after injuring his Achilles while on loan to Inter Milan, raised the league’s international profile.
“MLS is clearly far more respected and has a much broader awareness than we ever had before David Beckham came to the league,” Garber said. “This league is on the map in the world.”
Alexi Lalas, a former U.S. national team player and Galaxy general manager, said Henry is a good signing for the league and the Red Bulls.
“This was a calculated risk, but one that I think will pay off on and off the field, at least in the short term,” Lalas said in a telephone interview. “He still has the ability to make an impact.”
The Red Bulls have never won an MLS championship. The team is in second place in the MLS Eastern Conference with an 8-5-2 record.
“I want to see Red Bulls successful, not me successful,” Henry said. “That’s the most important thing to me.”