Shep Unleashed

Shep Unleashed: July 26

I’m back.  So are the Red Bulls.

The World Cup is over and so are the international exhibition games.  The Thierry Henry era has begun and with it comes great expectation and inevitably, great change.  In the short term, this starts a critical stretch in the dog days of summer for Red Bulls MLS run.  The next five weeks bring on away games at Houston and Chicago, home games against Toronto and LA, away to Toronto and home against San Jose.  These are all games that can be won.  But they are also all games, with Thierry Henry in the house, where Red Bulls will face teams that are more focused, more determined and have greater crowds to spur them on.  Just ask the LA Galaxy how it went when Beckham first came.  Having said that, this is a far better team surrounding Henry than Beckham had initially with LA. The challenge for Hans Backe will be to manage results during this five game period while Henry gets assimilated into the team.  He will get acclimated very quickly, as all great players do, but the more critical question is how his teammates react.  The perfect scenario is for players to elevate their game, as Kandji and Dane Richards did during the Barclays New York Challenge.  But there will also be a tendency for players to force the ball to Thierry, to release it too quickly, to rely on him too much and to relinquish their own responsibilities.  It’s a balance that will hopefully come quickly, because every team in the league will now be looking to knock off Red Bulls…..and Henry.  That’s the way it goes when you aspire to be the best, in the greatest sports market in the country.

Houston’s struggles this season and the absence of Bobby Boswell due to his red card against Columbus, make this an interesting challenge next Saturday night.  Houston will play a high back line to compact the field and give opportunities for Henry to slip behind their back four.  Aside from set piece opportunities by Brad Davis with Brian Ching as a target, they have struggled offensively as well.  It is never easy to play in Houston against the Dynamo.  But it is a great opportunity to get this critical run of games started with a positive result.

In the long term, Red Bulls have made it very clear that first, by building Red Bull Arena and now, by signing Henry, that mediocrity doesn’t succeed in this market. This signals a new era and hopefully, a great one, in the metropolitan area.  Are there players on this roster now who will be gone?  Absolutely.  It should make every player push a little bit harder, because nobody wants to leave this team now.  There is a surplus of deep central midfield players, a lack of wide midfield players, some spare parts in the back and questions up top.  It will be more difficult to make deals for players within Major League Soccer because of the commitment Red Bulls have made.  But that’s a pleasant problem to have and one that fans can finally embrace.

Shep Messing is a guest columnist for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.