French Soccer Star Thierry Henry Debut In U.S.

French soccer star Thierry Henry made his debut playing professional soccer in the U.S. last week, with the New York Red Bulls. NPR's Mike Pesca reports on the game and the outlook for soccer in the U.S., now that the World Cup is over.

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The World Cup may be over, but soccer fans take heart. Major League Soccer, the American professional league, is doing well. Take the New York Red Bulls, for instance. In the past few days, they've played exhibition matches, or friendlies, against top club teams from around the world.

They've shown off a new stadium and a new star player, as NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA: Like a new apartment complex trying to lure New York City dwellers to the suburb of Harrison, New Jersey, the new Red Bulls Arena has done itself up in brushed steel finishes. The roof is a curved metallic shell that would make faucet fetishists swoon. Also like a new high-rise, the arena boasts of easy access to mass transit. How easy? The Red Bulls newly acquired superstar Thierry Henry took the train to his debut game on Thursday.

NORRIS: Yeah, I was on a PATH train with my friends, and with all the fans. It was quite of an experience, but for me, is the quickest way to come to the game. And that's how I came, you know, and it was cool.

PESCA: Cool was among the more moderate reactions of the over-20,000 fans eager to welcome France's all-time leading scorer. Hundreds wore Henry jerseys, some the newly minted Red Bull version, some his former English club, Arsenal, for which Henry is also the all-time leading scorer.

NORRIS: The Republic of Ireland. An Henry hand-ball eliminated the Irish from the World Cup, and it's fair to say he ranks not too far below Oliver Cromwell on the list of names cursed by the Irish, but McKiernan had to credit Henry's play.

NORRIS: Oh, he's the best player in the park. His vision, so far, has been unbelievable. It really has.

CONAN: In the half of football he played Thursday, Henry had several good chances and the team's only goal in a two-one loss. Against Manchester City yesterday, the Red Bulls won, but this time, Henry could only come close.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER MATCH)

U: Henry has timed it well. Henry (unintelligible). Almost. He makes it look so easy.

PESCA: As the FOX Soccer Channel noted, though Henry only played the first half in each game, he was a class above.

While the friendlies don't count in the MLS standings, they count towards giving the league some attention and some credibility. A thriving national league is vital to the success of a strong national team, says the president of the United States Soccer Federation, Sunil Gulati.

NORRIS: For us to get where I want us to be, at the World Cup level, we're going to have to have an MLS that is stronger, continues to grow, and the product quality continues to get better. And I think all those things are happening.

PESCA: Gulati rode the PATH train to Henry's debut, as well, asking fans what they thought of the stadium and what they thought of the World Cup. Their enthusiasm didn't surprise him because Gulati makes the analogy that soccer is at halftime in a 50-year plan of growth.

But Don Garber, the commissioner of the MLS, knows they use a running clock in soccer.

NORRIS: It's not a 50-year plan. Man, we got to get it done a lot sooner than that.

PESCA: Garber believes if it can draw the public's attention, his league can deliver some World Cup-type thrills.

NORRIS: You give us 90 minutes in an MLS market, and we'll convince you that the world game is right at home.

PESCA: The MLS is showing steady growth. More teams have their own soccer-specific stadiums, and average attendance is up about eight percent over last year. Twenty-five thousand screaming Red Bulls fans hint at an enthusiastic market that's there to be tapped, but there are always reminders of what U.S. soccer is up against. Take this interview, as conducted by the "Good Day New York" morning show, later dubbed by an MLS blogger the worst soccer interview ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW "GOOD DAY NEW YORK")

U: So, okay, so you just won the World Cup, right?

NORRIS: No, not just. I did. But the last one, we didn't.

U: Okay. So now you're here playing for our team.

PESCA: No, the French won in 1998, when Henry was a young catalyst. Twelve years later, he's a different kind of champion of the game.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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