So, Thierry Henry is out. The second-most famous man in Major League Soccer will not make a trip to Empire Field this season thanks to a nagging knee injury that he had no intention of risking on Empire's turf. That'll horrify the neutrals and the casual fans looking forward to seeing one of the few players in this league they've definitely heard of. And a few of the fans will miss Rafael Marquez, too: he's at a Gold Cup tuneup with the Mexican national team. What had been one of the marquee dates on the calendar, one that casual fans had been circling and viewing with obvious relish, is now a lot less special. The Whitecaps had been using the New York Red Bulls visit as a spur to sell some of their mini-packs: I wonder how the guys who bought those packages feel now.
"But wait!" say some Vancouver Whitecaps fans. "The opposition is without two of its leading stars? How is that a bad thing? Now Vancouver might finally get a second MLS victory and god knows they need it." Anything which increases Vancouver's chances of victory is automatically an inherent good to anybody who could call themselves a Whitecaps fan. It's a very, very persuasive argument, and the sort of thing I usually agree with.
This time, though, I'm not quite sure. Obviously I'm glad the Whitecaps have a better chance to win the game and I will never, ever complain about three points no matter how they come. But the loss of Henry and Marquez does make this game a bit less special. Particularly since, for all of New York's cash and their MLS Cup aspirations, this is a game the Whitecaps would have a very real chance of winning even with Henry and Marquez available.
First, we must ask ourselves what sorts of fans Henry and Marquez would have brought through the turnstiles. Obviously there'd be a bunch of old-country snobs who view any team not worth a hundred million pounds as utterly beneath their notice. They'd be around to see Henry jog around the glorified retirement home since most of these people were born in Burnaby and for all their snobbery have probably never seen a player of his calibre in person (I've said this a few times before, but when somebody in Canada says that anything below a major European first division is beneath their notice, that's almost a sure sign they're not even remotely from Europe). These guys would never buy Whitecaps season tickets even if Vancouver won 8-7 in a match so exciting that Premier League commentators would needlessly talk about it.
There are also the people who are just curious about MLS. I think this would be the majority. You don't go to Empire the day of the UEFA Champions League final if you don't have at least a little interest in the league. Maybe they think that MLS isn't all that exciting, or they heard that the play isn't that good, but if Thierry Henry is in town they might take a look. Maybe they're just casual soccer fans who sort of follow Arsenal and just haven't really thought that MLS might be worth their time before. A lot of these guys are going to be standing on East Hastings desperately trying to sell their tickets for half their cost. Every fan who says "Henry's not playing? I guess I'll stay home then" is a potential MLS fan not converted.
"Ah, Ben, but don't you want the Whitecaps to win?" Of course I want the Whitecaps to win! But the hidden truth about the New York Red Bulls is that lately, they've looked lousy. They lost to Chivas USA at home - even Vancouver's not that hapless! Their defense has been positively Toronto FC-esque. With Henry and Marquez around, Vancouver's job would be difficult. But given the quality of the last three games Vancouver has played (counting the one that doesn't count), I'd actually have Vancouver as slight favourites over the strugging Metrostars at home.
If Vancouver beats an Henry-less, Marquez-less New York, that will be a very good thing. But imagine if those could-be fans saw Thierry Henry come out, look his best, maybe even score a goal, and then saw the local team win anyway. It could easily have happened, but now we'll never find out. What could have been an afternoon to remember is now just another day. I'd take a 50% chance at immortality over a 75% chance at happiness any day of the week.