By Julian Linden
HARRISON, New Jersey (Reuters) - Thierry Henry has scored more important goals during his career but few promised as much hope to a new legion of fans than his strike for the New York Red Bulls in a 2-1 defeat to Tottenham Hotspur on Thursday.
It was almost like old times for the former Arsenal forward as he tormented the Spurs defense with a single moment of magic, beating his opponents to connect with a seemingly harmless cross, before nonchalantly flicking it into the back of the net.
By his own standards, it was not a goal that will feature on his highlights reel but the significance of it was not lost on him or the 20,000 fans that packed into the New Jersey stadium to watch his American club debut in the friendly encounter.
Following in the footsteps of Pele and David Beckham, Henry swapped Barcelona for the Big Apple last week but has arrived in the U.S. as a soccer missionary and facing the same contrasting pressures of adulation and criticism as his predecessors.
His supporters and paymasters expect him to help convert more Americans to the sport while his detractors accuse him of turning his back on Europe and taking an early pension fund from the MLS, a notion the Frenchman has disputed since his arrival.
"The goals are going to come," he told a news conference after Thursday's match. "The reception was tremendous and every time I touched the ball they cheered. It was important for me to feel at home."
After spending his first week on a whirlwind tour around New York's major television networks and feted like a pop star, Henry joined the masses and caught a public train to his match.
As luck would have it, his first opponents were familiar foes from his days in north London. If ever he needed extra motivation, the sight of a Spurs jersey was enough to fuel his competitive juices.
His first few touches showed that while he had perhaps lost a yard of pace, he still possessed all his predatory instincts and it was no real surprise that he broke the deadlock after 25 minutes and gave his team a 1-0 lead at halftime.
For the faithful and the curious who had come to see him play, that was his last significant contribution to the game.
As soon as the halftime whistle was blown, he took off his first Red Bull number 14 shirt and handed it to Tottenham midfielder Luka Modric and did not return for the second half.
"He's going to make a massive, massive impact for us," Red Bull coach Hans Backe said. "But he's only one player and he needs his team mates to feed him the killer passes.
With Henry gone, Tottenham took control of the second half, Robbie Keane equalizing from short-range in the 62nd minute before Gareth Bale netted the winner ten minutes later following a mix-up in the New York defense.
"The young bloke from that first half, Henry, looks like he's got a good future," Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp quipped.
"He was fantastic. He's a different class. He's still a world class player. We were fortunate to win the game. We did okay. We're just back in training."
(Additional reporting by Larry Fine. Editing by John O'Brien)