BY MIKE VALLO
Yesterday’s heat stroke bonanza was a perfect showcase for everything fantastic and everything terrible about the New York Red Bulls. Two men in particular personify the opposing ends of the spectrum. Thierry Henry, the leader on the field, and Chris Heck, the top man off the field, could not be more of a contrast. One man has reached the highest level of his profession, won everything there is to win and yet continues to work like he has everything to prove. The other worked in basketball or something and is both clueless and disingenuous.
Heck’s inarguably awful decision to hold a game at 1pm in the middle of July for camp kids could have cost the team points or, worse, put the players at risk. It certainly didn’t fill the stands. Luckily Henry and the rest of the Red Bulls fought through the ridiculous conditions and earned the three points in an impressive show of determination. It was just another example of how endearing the players on this team are even as the front office can’t get out of its own way.
Henry and Heck’s Red Bulls journeys have been polar opposites. Chris Heck marked his arrival with big price increases and nonsense membership schemes. He then went on to add insult to injury by telling everyone prices went down overall. While that was in fact true, the price drops were all in areas without season ticket holders while the most committed fans were hit with the biggest increases. A move that sums up nicely the disingenuous tactics that have defined Heck’s management style.
If that wasn’t bad enough, the interviews he’s given during his tenure in New York are full of head scratching quotes. From telling fans the lower prices of the past were a gift to celebrating the fact that the long suffering New York fans have never won a championship, the man has been a PR nightmare; a classic suit who is completely out of touch with the fans he’s trying to profit from.
Henry’s first full season also got off to a rough start but the response could not have been more different. When the Frenchman got his first goal of the season he ran towards a group of fans and delivered a mix of celebration and aggression. Rarely has an athlete understood his adopted home so well. The people booing him minutes earlier were now his biggest fans. He threw it in their face and they loved him for it.
Henry and Heck also differ in their respect for and knowledge of Major League Soccer. Henry has won Ligue 1, The Premier League, the FA Cup, La Liga, the Copa del Rey, The Champions League, the European Championship and the World Cup. In other words, everything. He has nothing to prove. But watching him in New York, you would think the exact opposite. His desire to win is obvious, his frustration when he doesn’t is equally apparent. While producing on the field in terms of goals and assists, he’s constantly working to make his teammates better, mentoring the younger members of the team.
It’s also obvious that he studies the league closely. When asked about the state of the league he doesn’t mention David Beckham or even Landon Donovan, but expresses his admiration for Kyle Beckerman and RSL or Chris Wondolowski and the Earthquakes. Yesterday, he scored an absolute stunner to salvage three points and all he could talk about post game was the importance of Brandon Barklage and Connor Lade to this year’s team. This after not wanting to come off despite the 100 degree temperature. When he did come off he made the meaningful gesture of putting the armband on Dax McCarty; another nod to one of his less renowned but equally deserving teammates.
It’s impossible not to love this guy.
Heck could learn a lot from Henry. His knowledge of MLS is laughable and his respect for the league is non-existent. MLS has years of failure attracting fans that Heck could have and should have learned from. Now there are plenty of franchises who have figured it out. Heck has disregarded all of this precedent.
Yesterday’s game was an “experiment” according to Heck. Well, the Metrostars already tried that experiment and it was a disaster. A quick trip to metrofanatic.com could have saved him from repeating the disaster. MLS focused on soccer moms and youth teams for years before realizing that those people don’t stick around. Deals on sites like Living Social and Groupon, which Heck adores, might get a quick boost in attendance but they don’t build a fanbase and they devalue season tickets.
All of these mistakes could have been avoided with some research into league history and consultation with people who have experience in MLS. Instead Heck plowed away, sure that his experience with USA Basketball had made him the genius this franchise needed. This year’s average attendance is 17,261; down 13% from last year’s already underwhelming figure and on par with the all time franchise average. It’s a fact that is shocking when you consider how woeful attendance was for certain years in the swamp and how much Heck pads each game’s attendance.
On Wednesday, Thierry Henry scored an unbelievable winning goal in the oppressive heat and lauded his less celebrated teammates. Chris Heck delivered a nearly empty stadium, put the players in danger and then announced attendance at over 15,000–an insult to anyone with eyes.
One of these men will go down as a New York legend, the other just needs to go.