Europeans—and yes UK, I'm chucking you in there as well—can be very stupid about all things North (sorry Sigi) American, especially when it comes to soccer. That's such a banal sentence to write that I'm almost embarrassed to open with it, but it boggles the mind that Lawrence Donegan can still win assignments to cover the "American" side of things in football, and that the Guardian still thinks it's pithy to ask its UK readers whether MLS is a retirement league.
But because I'm tired (read hungover), and also because Jason Davis and Tom Dunmore have already lent their excellent minds to the subject, I don't want to go off on the whole European coverage of the Henry to Red Bulls story.
No, what I want to talk about is Emile Heskey's retirement from international football, and why I think he'd be a way better fit for MLS than Henry.
Bear with me a moment.
I remember listening to John Ashdown (I think it was him anyway) telling a story on the World Cup Football Daily on Heskey's initial development according to the "typical strong English centre forward" model while playing for Leicester City's youth team. Apparently when young he was a pacey attacker more in line—ridiculous as it may seem—with a Robin van Persie, but that just wouldn't do for English club football. You had to be strong on the ball, you had to get all up in central defenders faces and make your own space, not run into it. That was a job for midfielders. So they bulked him up, slowed him down, and while his amazing finishing would flash brilliantly over several years for Leicester and Liverpool, and sometimes Aston Villa, you did get the sense that Heskey was never quite comfortable in his own skin.
That's why Heskey's retirement seems more symbolic of the end of the England/Premier League/4-4-2 "pace, passion and pride" era than England's hopeless exposure against Germany in the round of 16. Coming on the heels of Jonathan Wilson's typically excellent half-obituary for the international relevance of 4-4-2, a formation for which players like Heskey were (literally, if you believe Ashdown) designed, the announcement feels like that of a lonely worker whose trade has been long-rendered irrelevant by "advances in the field."
Still, Heskey didn't succumb to frustration; he just knew that was that. He was clowned in an England shirt every time he put it on in later years, but out he went anyway, not barking at the TV cameras, not asking for support from "the fans," just sort of running out and doing what he was told. He reminds me in some ways of a less angry Danny Dichio, a classic English centre-forward who was cast aside as a relic overseas but found unlikely pride in a Toronto FC shirt. Preki doesn't coach that sort of club anymore, but Heskey seems like he'd take better advantage of an MLS berth than Henry, a player New Yorkers are going to have to get used to seeing standing outside the 18 yard box with hands on hips, staring at his midfielders like an impatient Parisian flaneur waiting for his bill at the cafe.
I know: why even talk about Heskey coming here, a player who has literally retired, and further the MLS "rest home" myth? Well, come on. Yes, MLS produces great young players, but DPs are often proven Euro stars slightly past their best-by dates. That's just a fact of life. The issue is whether MLS should just take them any way they can get them. No doubt Henry is still capable of brilliance, but his MLS stint, like Beckham's, will be a sideshow failure. Heskey on the other hand, probably more than Dichio, could easily win over an MLS city. Fans would be charmed by the quiet Englishman who doesn't move around as much any more but is still capable of finding his own space and scoring well-taken goals. Far removed from the brutal expectations of a feckless fanbase, he might return to the instincts of his youth and—who knows?—even start playing in his own skin again.