Thierry Henry started and played in more MLS games than ever before in 2013.
Do not expect him to outdo those feats next season.
Henry made an MLS career-high 27 starts during the past regular season, amassing 2,519 minutes over 30 appearances in the process for a New York Red Bulls team that won the Supporters’ Shield. His previous MLS highs were 2,266 minutes in 26 starts. But the club’s gameplan for the aging veteran moving into next year is to limit how much he plays because of the number of competitions New York are scheduled to partake in.
From the MLS regular season to the U.S. Open Cup to the CONCACAF Champions League, there will be no shortage of matches in 2014. The star striker, however, will turn 37 next August, and keeping his legs fresh with so many games on tap is a challenge that Red Bulls head coach Mike Petke knows he needs to resolve this offseason.
"He definitely falls into a category of somebody I need to sit down with and figure things out for all the competitions we have next year and all that travel that's going to entail," Petke said via a teleconference earlier this week. "This year, it was very tough for me to take him off the field because of what he brings. I remember two games we had, conference games actually this year, and after the game chatting with the other coach, who I know, and just comments they would make like, 'It's unbelievable just having a Thierry Henry on your team. You could see in my guys' eyes a little bit of fear.' That's a credit to Thierry, so that's the reason why it was tough for me to take him off in my first year, because I know in any given moment he could be that spark, and he was for many moments this year.”
Resting Henry -- and thus going without his ability to provide unexpected magic -- may be a blow to the Red Bulls’ offense, but the numbers seem to indicate that the Frenchman could use a break from time to time.
In 2013, Henry took 92 shots (his highest total in an MLS regular season), but only 29 of those were on frame, and 10 found the back of the net. Of course, 10 goals is nothing to sneeze at over the course of a grueling 34-game campaign, but it is Henry’s lowest total in a full season since he joined MLS and five shy of the amount he put up in 2012 despite taking fewer shots (88).
Statistics aside, Henry’s quality and game-changing ability when he’s healthy and rested are almost unmatched in MLS and the reason why the Red Bulls are still comfortable building their offense around him despite his age.
"Thierry is our captain, and he's by far one of the, if not the, best players in this league in his best moment," said Petke. "We have him next year, he's still under contract, we're thrilled to have him back. He's been re-energized and re-focused, and I think that Thierry is, and perhaps will be until he's gone, the focal point of this team because of what he can bring at any given moment."
Managing minutes will not strictly apply to Henry next year. With so many games on the schedule, Petke intends to rest some of his veterans, such as Tim Cahill and Jamison Olave, and give minutes to younger players like Michael Bustamante and Matt Miazga, both of whom are licking their chops at the idea of more playing time in 2014.
“I have to get better at managing playing minutes and rotating more,” Petke said. “You can’t argue that what we did this year worked in the regular season, with where we ended up. Obviously with more competitions next year, we’re going to have to figure a different course of action as far as playing minutes. The young guys have done well, they have done well in practice. I was able to get Bustamante into a couple of games, Miazga got some minutes, Ruben Bover, Marius [Obekop] -- they all got minutes. If they continue the course that they are going, they can see significantly more minutes next year.”