He may be 37 years of age but Thierry Henry showed last weekend that he still has plenty to offer with a pair of superb assists for the New York Red Bulls in their 2-0 win over DC United in the first leg of their MLS Eastern Conference Semi Final.
The Frenchman conjured up two moments of brilliance to lay on goals for Bradley Wright-Phillips and Peguy Luyindula in either half, putting the Red Bulls in an excellent position to make the conference final.
On 39 minutes, Henry appeared to have eyes in the back of his head as he backheeled the ball to Bradley Wright-Phillips inside the penalty area, allowing the striker to slot home his 30th goal of the season.
Then, in the 73rd minute, Henry spotted a run by compatriot Luyindula and found him with a sumptuous ball over the top that was calmly finished off for the game-clinching goal.
“Today was vintage Thierry,” said Red Bulls goalkeeper Luis Robles afterwards.
“I think everyone that was watching the game – whether they were participating or watching – saw remnants of what he’s been doing for years.
“There was a stretch in that game where I thought it didn’t matter who we played. As long as Thierry’s playing like this and we continue to support him the way he is, we’re going to be difficult to beat.”
DC United went into the game as the first seed from the East after a stunning regular season campaign that saw them bounce back from their last place finish on the combined Supporters’ Shield ladder in 2013.
They were undone by Henry’s class though and now face an uphill battle to turn the tie around this coming Saturday afternoon at RFK Stadium, but will be buoyed by the fact that they ran out 2-0 winners in the game played there at the end of August.
The rivalry between New York and DC is one of the originals in MLS and each year the side that emerges with the best aggregate score from their meetings is awarded the Atlantic Cup.
Despite the influx of new teams in other markets such as the Pacific Northwest where the Portland Timbers, Seattle Sounders and Vancouver Whitecaps battle for the Cascadia Cup, the NY-DC battles continue to be fiercely contested.
“I still respect the rivalry in a big way,” said DC coach Ben Olsen, who also had a stellar playing career with the club, back in April.
“To me, it’s still the oldest [rivalry] that this league has. I think it’s had some amazing storylines throughout the years and I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of it all.”
The rivalry has offered up some memorable moments, though not always for the right reasons. In 2006, for example, DC’s Alecko Eskandarian scored in his side’s 4-1 win and celebrated by taking a sip of Red Bull and immediately spitting it out, a direct response to New York’s recent rebranding from the Metrostars. Eskandarian was fined $250 for his efforts.
There was no such controversy in last weekend’s game though, played in front of 18,054 spectators at Red Bull Arena, as Thierry Henry stole the show.
The speculation about Henry’s plans for the future and whether this will be his last season as a professional football player continues, but the man himself has given no indication of what his decision will be, and even his team mates are still very much in the dark.
“Nobody really knows what he wants to do or what his plan is,” said midfielder Dax McCarty this week.
“Maybe he does know and maybe that’s part of his motivation to make sure that he proves that he’s still pretty damn good.
“It’s easy to see that this year, especially, and in this postseason he’s been not only our vocal leader, but also a leader by example and he’s not a guy to take lightly when he’s playing like he is now.”
Having already knocked out last season’s MLS Cup winners Sporting Kansas City, the Red Bulls are understandably one of the favourites to go all the way this year.
Should they get the job done in DC, the Mike Petke’s side will take on either the New England Revolution or Columbus Crew for the Eastern Conference Championship.
With Henry pulling the strings and a supporting cast of Wright-Phillips, Luyandula, Tim Cahill and Lloyd Sam, don’t be surprised to see them as one of the sides contesting MLS Cup on December 7.