The king is hanging up his cleats. Thierry Henry officially retired today, and will be an (assumedly blunt, witty, and insightful) analyst for Sky Sports. Many exclusively remember him for his years with Arsenal and Barcelona, but those in the United States feel privileged to have seen him casually dominate for the last five years in a New York Red Bulls kit. Joining the MLS club at 32 after already scoring 232 goals in 455 professional matches, for many European fans Henry’s stateside accomplishments were always going to be little more than footnotes on a remarkable career. However, despite his nonchalant bearing, Henry never played MLS matches as though they were anything but serious business.
What was truly remarkable about Thierry Henry’s time in MLS was that he aged his game in a smart way that few athletes seem to even attempt. Oftentimes an aging star either tries to recreate his old magic by sacrificing other areas¹ or just takes a walking paid retirement². Thierry Henry took the road less traveled by recognizing the limitations body was thrust on him and adapting himself to still be enormously effective despite being a very different player³.
The blazing footspeed of Henry’s heyday was gone, but without it he more clearly exhibited his beautiful mind which could read the circumstances of the match faster than anyone else, then elegantly position himself and execute a sly pass, run, or shot that turned everything on its ear. His goal and assist numbers below reflect that he remained enormously productive throughout this period.
Some MLS supporters didn’t get to see the show in person though, because Henry selectively sat out matches played on certain artificial surfaces. Every time he was scheduled to play on turf that was tailored for American football, there was always a reason for Henry to take the day off. I’m not sure if “turf distaste” was ever the explicit reason for Henry’s absence, but the last four stadiums in the below graphic lay out the trend pretty clearly.
Portland is the exception on which he played every available minute, and it is noteworthy that their artificial turf is the only such surface in MLS that doesn’t occasionally host professional tackle football games. Turf can be setup for soccer or football, and whether that makes a difference can be debated, but Henry clearly acted as though Portland’s approach to artificial turf was the only acceptable non-grass solution.
Montreal has played the vast majority of their MLS matches on grass in Stade Saputo, but of the Red Bulls’ five visits to Montreal, only two were played on grass, including, on July 28, 2012, Henry’s only regular season visit to Seattle, Vancouver, New England, or Montreal that involved kicking a ball. If Montreal did purposefully dodge Henry visits through disproportionately staging them on Olympic Stadium turf, it was a smart strategy, as he was positively merciless when he did play against the Impact, to the tune of 1.8 goals per 90 minutes and 0.8 assists per 90, both the highest marks Henry posted against MLS opponents.
In the above graphic you can explore Henry’s output across 10 different categories, organized by MLS club, city in which the match was played, or even by month. In all cases, the results will be sorted highest to lowest⁴. All of three of the dashboards above are driven simply by the game log on Henry’s MLS profile page, and I should re-iterate that this resource only covers the regular season. Ironically, his final professional appearance was a playoff appearance on New England’s turf.
In no way is this meant to imply that Thierry Henry’s contributions can be fully rendered in graphs. His smooth brilliance was best witnessed by keeping your eyes on him for 90 minutes so you could try to catch as many of the great moments, subtle and/or sublime, that he would churn out regularly while flowing through the beautiful game. The charts just reflect that all of that elegance was still enormously productive.
1. NBA fans are probably thinking of Kobe Bryant hurting the chemistry and defense of the Lakers right now, distilling his game to little more than inefficient scoring and lots of it.
2. Ironically, New York also paid huge sums to two of the most unashamedly lazy aging stars in MLS history, Lothar Matthäus and Rafa Marquez.
3. Another NBA reference: one of the best corralaries to Henry’s evolving approach was the last few years of Jason Kidd’s career, in which his speed was gone, but his brain helped him manipulate circumstances, getting many easy points and steals for his team.
4. Admittedly, this order takes some getting used to when looking at monthly stats, but I figured that some would enjoy the feature nonetheless.