NEW YORK -- A legendary performer, one of the finest in the history of his sport, took part in what might be his final media day here in New York on Tuesday night.
No, this is not Derek Jeter. The player in question is Thierry Henry of the New York Red Bulls, who will start their season this Saturday against the Vancouver Whitecaps. And you need to go see him while you still can.
Unlike Jeter, Henry hasn't divulged his plans beyond 2014 yet. He's in the final season of the contract he signed with the Red Bulls back in the summer of 2010.
But he'll be 37 in August. He's already doing the television work that usually comes after a playing career. Henry laughed when a reporter asked him about how he'd reflect on the state of Major League Soccer eight years from now.
"Eight years for sure, definitely," Henry said, laughing. "I'll be out then for sure."
In the meantime, Henry keeps playing -- and at a high level. But the suspicion with which the French star once greeted American soccer reporters has largely melted away. Last week at MLS media day, once the formal Q&A was over, Henry pulled up a chair and sat with the press pool. And Tuesday night, with the steady bass of a party one floor below serving as backdrop for Red Bulls Media Day at Manhattan's Stage 48, Henry held court for nearly 40 minutes.
He's happy to analyze his game, perhaps realizing that the reporters covering MLS generally prefer getting the larger story rather than the more attention-grabbing headlines one could conjure up in England, during Henry's Arsenal years, by taking a quote out of context.
So when I asked him how, apart from the Red Bulls do, he enjoyed his life in New York, Henry pointed out: "That could've happened without me playing anyway, so let's talk about the game."
Henry is right, of course. He could have retired years ago now, and moved here permanently to enjoy the city that suits him so well. So what keeps him going, through the many road trips and a season that stretches from the start of training camp in January to, if it all goes right, the MLS Cup, which took place last year in December?
"Just the love of the game, and to have fun," Henry said.
But again, Henry's idea of fun isn't what many of the European stars who preceded him to MLS considered fun, which is to say, giving half-hearted effort while taking in American life. Henry's relentless drive hasn't abated here. There's been a fascinating collision between the win-at-all-costs Henry experience, and the legacy of the Red Bulls -- formerly known as the MetroStars -- which has been finding improbable ways to lose while staying trophy-free.
The last part is no longer true. The Red Bulls won the MLS Supporters Shield last season. And an offseason free of the typical franchise turnover followed, with most of last year's lineup returning to the fold, along with head coach Mike Petke, now in his second season with the club.
The presence of Henry, specifically his durability, made a huge difference last year. Henry played in 30 games in 2013, up from 25 and 26 the previous two years. And the time missed had less to do with injuries, and more to do with a preventative decision not to play Henry on artificial turf.
The issue of how often to deploy Henry is more complicated this year, thanks to last season's success. The Supporters Shield gives the Red Bulls access to the CONCACAF Champions League for the first time in Henry's time with the club, making for a busier fixture schedule. Petke has to figure out the proper way to deploy his biggest star.
"Well, last year I didn't really save him or preserve him much, to be honest with you," Petke told me Tuesday night. "I really pushed him to the limit, as well as a lot of other guys. I would say, going into this season, with all the competitions we have, Champions League now, I think it's gonna be a situation where we're going to have to rotate players a lot more."
For his part, Henry insists he'll play at the pleasure of his head coach. That includes the opener on Saturday, on Vancouver's artificial turf. But no one actually believes Henry will take the field on Saturday -- his opener is almost certain, instead, to come March 15 on the knee-friendly grass of Red Bull Arena.
"If I have to play, I'll play," Henry said simply, when asked about Petke's comments.
It isn't that simple, though. There's Champions League, there's the MLS season itself, there's even a likely U.S. Open Cup match against the New York Cosmos later this summer. Henry's presence or absence from the lineup will be a reliable bellwether for what matters to the Red Bulls. No player would be asked to play in all of it, let alone one at Henry's career stage.
But the fact that we're even talking about properly getting Henry to November healthy, when the playoffs start, is a concession by Henry to the emphasis on the playoffs here in America. After all, no one required Henry's 2003-04 Arsenal to win some tournament after going undefeated in Premier League play to prove their greatness all over again.
"Especially in Europe, the way we see it is, if you play over 34 games, and you manage to be on top, it should be enough," Henry said. "But as you know, the way it is set up here, you have to go through the playoffs. And in the playoffs, for example, I remember my time in Barcelona [during the 2009-10 UEFA Champions League group stage], we lost against Rubin Kazan 2-1, and then drew at their place, 0-0. So if it had been the playoffs, we would have been out. But I don't think that means Rubin Kazan was a better team than us."
I wondered, though, whether Henry viewed his legacy as already including the MLS title that mattered to him. But he laughed at the idea.
"No no no! No. Because how you win it here is to win MLS Cup. So no. But as I said, did we win a trophy? Yes. We did win a trophy, not the trophy, I guess… So we'll see how it's gonna turn out."
One thing Henry said he's not going to fret about, though, is making sure his career ends on such a high note. That's probably welcome news to Red Bulls fans, who could find themselves with Henry returning after this season, even if the team finally breaks through and captures that MLS Cup. The flip side to this: perhaps Henry won't return next year, even if the Red Bulls fall short.
"Oh, it would mean the world to me, and even more so to the fans," Henry said of winning the trophy. "They've been waiting for a long time. But like I said to you, that's where people get it wrong. When you finish a career, you have to analyze your career. I don't agree with the finishing on a high note characterizing. If you can finish on a high note, so be it."
"Now," Henry concluded. "Do I want to win it? Yes sir."
Henry, incidentally, was the Man of the Match in that Euro final, won by France. Maldini is now retired. How much longer soccer fans get to enjoy Henry remains unknown.
So make sure you don't miss him in 2014. Get to Red Bull Arena. Go see him on the road. (If you live in a city with artificial turf, consider moving.)
No, there won't be ceremonies, the way there will be for Derek Jeter. Just epochal greatness, on display for at least a bit longer.