UPPER MONTCLAIR, N.J. – Last year, Red Bulls head coach Hans Backe called Thierry Henry “class” and “easy to work with,” a testament to the former Barcelona and Arsenal striker’s commitment to his New York team and his new league.
Others raved about the Frenchman as a teammate – former New York midfielder Seth Stammler once said that Henry “was just one of the guys in the locker room,” and midfielder Dane Richards and teenage forward Juan Agudelo both credit the former France international for mentoring them.
But Agudelo can do more than just call Henry a teammate or a teacher. He calls him “friend.”
Possibly the two starting forwards for New York when they open the MLS season on March 19, Agudelo, 18, and Henry, 33, have formed a bond that extends off the field, and Agudelo is a bit surprised by the chummy way they get along.
“I feel like we’re getting along better this year,” Agudelo said of his relationship with Henry. “Off the field, now we’re developing a friendship.”
[inline_node:329556]Agudelo never imaged this a year ago, when he signed with the Red Bulls in late March. He didn’t expect to be playing with the likes of Henry, let alone be pals with him.
It was Agudelo who replaced an injured Henry in the lineup during the latter portions of the 2010 season, making his league debut in the waning minutes of an October draw with Real Salt Lake at Red Bull Arena.
The teenager had ups and downs during those last few games of the season, but the high point came when he assisted on New York’s lone goal in a 3-1 playoff loss to San Jose, sending in a beautiful cross to then teammate Juan Pablo Angel.
The Red Bulls were eliminated from contention for the MLS Cup in that game, but in the long run, the emergence of Agudelo on the big stage might be an even bigger victory.
Homegrown Agudelo – perhaps more than international import Henry – is the future face of the Red Bulls, and Backe is carefully cultivating the youngster for bigger things. The coach once talked about the teenager playing wide right, but after seeing Agudelo score in his debut match for the US, Backe sees his player as a forward.
“We will probably have four strikers and he will be one of them,” Backe said of Agudelo in February.
Apart from being his probably future strike partner and friend, Agudelo can count on Henry as a mentor.
“He's helping me out and I’m listening,” said Agudelo of the French megastar. “When I was young, I used to think these guys were special – these top players. But now I see that they’re just like us. It gives me a lot of confidence to see how these players carry themselves. I try to copy that.”
Kristian R. Dyer can be followed at twitter.com/KristianRDyer