Henry and Jones Bring International Flair to MLS Championship Chase

Thierry Henry knocks Jermaine Jones off the ball. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Thierry Henry knocks Jermaine Jones off the ball. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Thierry Henry and Jermaine Jones probably couldn’t spell MLS when they were battling each other in the Champions League. But they have left Europe behind and, six years after last clashing, are going head to head in the league’s Eastern Conference finals, Henry’s New York Red Bulls versus Jones’ Revolution.

Henry got the upper hand on Jones in the Champions League when Barcelona defeated Schalke 04 as Yaya Toure put the only goal past Manuel Neuer in the 2007-08 quarterfinals’ return leg at Camp Nou. Now, Jones has the advantage, the Revolution holding a 2-1 edge going into the second leg match of the aggregate goals series on Saturday at 3:00 p.m. at Gillette Stadium.

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This match is very much about the veteran leaders of these teams, but Henry’s presence will be the reason for this game to be remembered.

Henry, 37, could be concluding a 20-year professional career, ironically having to do so on the artificial turf he has disdained since arriving in MLS in 2011. Jones, 33, is still in an early stage of his MLS experience, helping the Revolution go unbeaten (9-0-1) with him in the starting lineup since joining the team Aug. 30.

Jones & Co. have captured imaginations locally – a 25,000-plus crowd is expected Saturday. But the fate of Henry will gain international attention.

Should Henry and the Red Bulls overcome their deficit, the eyes of the soccer world will follow them to the MLS Cup final in Los Angeles or Seattle on Dec. 7. Elimination will raise questions about Henry’s possible retirement.

Henry is being cast in the role of the aging hero, giving it a last shot after winning a World Cup and European Championship with France, a Champions League title with Barcelona, plus titles in Ligue 1, the Premiership and La Liga. There are signs of Henry creaking – coach Mike Petke noted his Achilles’ tendons are at risk just by stepping onto the synthetic surface – but he hardly looked like a fading performer last Sunday.

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“If this game were in June he most likely would not be playing – it’s not worth it,’’ Petke said this week. “Obviously, now it is.’’

Henry’s combination of power, savvy, and skill are unmatched in MLS. Though he would not be able to perform at a high level over a full European season, Henry can still overpower opponents with strength and outmaneuver them with technique when it counts. The Revolution were able to limit his touches in the second half in the first leg at Red Bull Arena, taking him out of the game before he could take them out.

But Henry did threaten the Revolution defense off the dribble and with crosses. League-leading scorer Bradley Wright-Phillips (record-tying 27 goals) converted the only Red Bull goal, but also confirmed Henry’s assessment that he had been provided the service to score 40 goals. Tim Cahill, who will replace Wright-Phillips (suspended), has had a low-scoring season but should provided an efficient target for Henry’s crosses.

If Henry’s swan song does take place in Foxborough, he will be in good company – Diego Maradona’s international career ended there, a failed drug test leading to a FIFA suspension during the 1994 World Cup.

Jones struggled to impose himself in the opening game, but eventually placed his stamp on the action. He plays a free role with the Revolution, and with the result in the balance, he seemed to be everywhere, rallying the defense, then converting the deciding goal in the 86th minute.

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Part of Jones’ reason for moving to MLS was the chance to expand his performance range, though he said he is all right with being cast as the anti-hero.

“I love it when people a little bit start to hate me,’’ Jones said during a press conference this week.

But Jones doesn’t just have to be the bad guy, breaking up plays and disrupting the game. Jones is showing he can still take on the part of villain (a 26th-minute takedown of Dax McCarty was vintage Jones as enforcer), but he can also organize the attack and go forward.

“They’re both two leaders on field and I think both teams recognize that,’’ Revolution general manager Michael Burns said Friday.

“They are both just very competitive players and want to win and a lot of players follow suit. (Henry) has been and is a remarkable player. In terms of our focus we’re conscious of him, he’s their key player. But I’m not going to get all nostalgic about his career. We’re trying to win the game and it’s the same for them. Only he knows if this will be his last game. From our point of view, we just want to go out and get the win.’’

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