Montreal·Analysis

Thierry Henry hire is a gamble worth taking for the Montreal Impact

Thierry Henry is as big of a name as there is in soccer. During his playing days, he netted goals for some of the world’s premiere clubs, including Arsenal and Barcelona.

Former Arsenal and Barcelona striker comes to Montreal after short, turbulent coaching stint for AS Monaco FC

Thierry Henry is the new head coach of the Montreal Impact. (AP-Manu Fernandez/The Associated Press)

If you're a fan of the Montreal Impact, you have to like this pick — even if it comes with some risks.

Thierry Henry is as big of a name as there is in soccer. During his playing days, he netted goals for some of the world's premiere clubs, including Arsenal and Barcelona.

Internationally, he starred for France for more than a decade, notably hoisting the World Cup in 1998.

But perhaps most important: he played five seasons in the MLS, so he knows the league he's been hired to coach intimately. 

MLS experience is key

If there is one thing that stands out from the Impact's eight seasons since joining the MLS, it's that having a coach who understands the challenges of the league and the North American game is essential. 

The Impact has hired European coaches twice before — Marco Schallibaum in 2013, and Remi Garde in 2017. 

Henry's predecessors have learned the hard way that the MLS is not like other leagues around the world.

Schallibaum's Achilles' heel was the MLS schedule. After a strong start to the season, his squad was worn down by the rigours of MLS travel, which often means flying commercial. They limped to a first-round playoff exit, and Schallibaum was fired. 

Former Montreal Impact head coach Remi Garde during an MLS soccer match against the Seattle Sounders,March 31, 2018. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Garde, for his part, took too long to adjust and understand the reality of coaching in a salary-cap league.

To build a roster in the MLS, a manager needs to understand the complex implications of things called TAM (Targeted Allocation Money), GAM (General Allocation Money) and the designated player rule. If it sounds complicated, that's because it is. 

His lack of expertise in managing a salary cap showed when his team took the field to start the 2017 season.

They lacked the necessary depth of talent to succeed, and a few injuries upset the entire apple cart. That year they started slowly and missed the playoffs.

Garde came back for a second season but was on a short leash, and he was fired when the team hit a slump midway through the year.

Unlike Garde and Schallibaum, Henry is a European who comes to the job in Montreal with direct MLS experience.

He spent five seasons playing for the New York Red Bulls. He knows first-hand how to manage the travel that the league demands — and while managing a salary cap will be new to him, having played here, it won't be an alien concept.

Rocky experience as AS Monaco coach  

There is no way to sugar-coat it: Henry's most recent coaching gig with AS Monaco was a disaster.

His tenure lasted only 20 games, and by all accounts, he lost the respect of his players through a series of tactical decisions that, in retrospect, highlighted his lack of head-coaching experience and perhaps some immaturity. 

One account of his time managing Monaco, by Adam White of The Guardian, concluded that he acted more like a senior player than a manager. 

Thierry Henry's most recent coaching gig with AS Monaco was a disaster. His tenure lasted only 20 games. (Claude Paris/The Associated Press)

But Henry's Monaco coaching experience needs to be put into context.

His team was plagued with injuries from the moment he arrived. At one point, he was trying to field a team with twelve first-team players injured. 

How he handled the adversity can certainly be criticized, but the fact is, when teams are losing, every decision a coach makes that doesn't work is amplified. 

It's fair to say that all Henry's troubles in Monaco can be traced back to that wave of injuries. It's also fair to surmise that Henry will have learned from the experience, and he won't make the same mistakes again. 

Stars like playing for stars 

No doubt, the Henry hire will raise the profile of the Montreal Impact internationally. 

It's like when Didier Drogba came to Montreal as a player — a lot of eyeballs turned towards Montreal.

The Impact's new sporting director, Olivier Renard, likely understands this and hopes that the move will put his club on the radar for players who otherwise might never have considered Montreal as a destination. 

When he was hired, Renard said he wanted to build an identity for the Impact. He said he wanted his team to be attack-minded.

In this 2006 file photo, then-Arsenal player Thierry Henry sits on the pitch during their Champions League final soccer match. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

The message Henry's hiring sends out to every possible transfer on the market is this one: who wants to come play for a coach who netted hundreds of spectacular goals as a player and lifted the biggest prizes in the game?

It's a gamble, but Renard is betting on a star coach to attract star players to Montreal, and Henry's MLS experience gives him an edge that other coaches from Europe lacked. 

Henry will have to hit the ground running, however.

The Impact holds its training camp in January and will start the 2020 season with high stakes CONCACAF Champions League games at the end of February.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Douglas Gelevan is a national award-winning journalist who has been a member of the CBC team since 2010. In addition to his role as host of CBC Montreal Weekend News, Doug also covers community sports and sports news.

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