COMMERCE CITY - Thierry Henry once was one of the world's premier soccer players, and he still could get mobbed while walking the streets of London, Paris, Tokyo or Capetown.
On Thursday night on the edge of Denver, he stood all by himself at midfield, hands on hips, his eyes full of despair. His New York Red Bulls were on their way to a 2-0 loss to the Colorado Rapids, and the biggest name in Major League Soccer looked helpless and alone.
This was a battle of contrasts. The Red Bulls are taking the soccer celebrity route. They signed Henry in an attempt to grab attention in the crowded New York market and win an MLS title.
The Rapids are traveling a different road. This is a team of largely young, anonymous players. The Rapids never have signed a big-name, big-money, past-his-prime international star.
Don't expect this style to change.
Rapids technical director Paul Bravo talked about the Rapids' plan to rule the MLS. Technical director is soccer's way of saying general manager.
"It's just a fundamental philosophy of our club," Bravo said. "We're looking for somebody who fits in a certain age category. Anyone from 18 to let's say 30 years old. That's what we're looking for."
Henry turns 36 in August. He's not what the Rapids are looking for.
The aging celebrity plan can work in the MLS. David Beckham did what The Beatles and Rolling Stones once did:
He invaded America and returned to England as a conqueror. Beckham won the last two MLS Cup titles for the Los Angeles Galaxy. He helped sell soccer to the soccer-adverse United States.
But there is another way. The Rapids won the 2010 MLS Cup with a roster utterly devoid of international celebrities. The Rapids even had a homegrown flavor. Conor Casey, the star of the title team, played high school soccer at Denver South.
As a soccer fan, I'd love to see the Rapids take a chance on an aging superstar who wants to come to America for his final paydays. Kaka or Didier Drogba, far past their primes, could boost attendance, interest and victories for the Rapids, now stuck in the middle of the MLS.
This is not some far-fetched idea. Rapids owner Enos Stanley Kroenke certainly has the funds to pay for a once-elite player. Henry will earn $4.35 million this season, a bargain compared to the $15 million Kroenke paid Nuggets guard Andre Iguodala this season.
Happy endings for soccer's ancient invaders are not guaranteed. Henry was, no doubt, the Red Bull's most effective player on Thursday night. He weaved through Rapids defenders. He almost scored twice.
It was all in vain. In the 77th minute, he directed an expertly placed pass to Kosuke Kimura, who flubbed the chance.
Henry helped carry France to a World Cup title in 1998. He thrilled fans in the English Premier League and Spain's La Liga. He's done so much, but he could not deliver victory in Colorado.
Henry raised his hands to the heavens after Kimura's mistake.
He came to America for this?