Connolly: For Chris Henderson The Best is Yet to Come
By Marc Connolly for MLSnet.com -He has gone to a World Cup played as a professional in Europe won an MLS title and other than New England's Steve Ralston has suited up for more MLS matches than anyone else during his nine-year tenure with three different clubs.
One might not think there's a lot left for Chris Henderson to accomplish in the game of soccer. Yet just having turned 34 years old during the offseason the seemingly ageless Edmonds Wash. native who hardly looks 15 years older than the hot shot teenager that made the U.S. World Cup team in 1990 is still going strong as he enters his 10th year in Major League Soccer. In fact he says he feels no different now in his mid-30s than he did in his 20s.
"I know I'm 34 but I feel great said Henderson on Wednesday morning from his residence in the Rocky Mountain State. "I look at some of the other sports and I see guys in their 30s getting stronger. And really I feel like I've gotten stronger as well."
Much like what is the case for Roger Clemens Curt Schilling and other pitchers who have actually become better at their craft the older they have become because their baseball IQ has increased Henderson believes his tactical awareness at this stage of his career has helped him continue to thrive in his 30s.
"At this point I just know where to be on the field and there aren't too many situations I haven't dealt with he said. "I wish I had that ability 10 years ago. I do a lot more thinking on the field now as opposed to when I was younger. I've now realized that as a winger it's all about getting half of a step on a defender to get in a cross rather than having to beat him."
Serving in balls from the right flank position has been a trademark for Henderson over the years. Although he has scored 45 goals during his career -- 30 for the Rapids -- it has been his ability to create from out wide and wreak havoc for the opposing team's left midfielder and left back that has made him one of the league's all-time best midfielders.
Now that the club has both hired his friend and former teammate Fernando Clavijo who is all about attacking soccer and using the wingers to get behind the defense and traded for marksman Jeff Cunningham Henderson is primed for another strong season.
"There was a lot of pressure on Mark (Chung) and I to score last year he says. "To now have someone like Cunningham in the middle to look to for goals it'll make our jobs a lot easier. We'll try and get the ball wider this year to open up space for Cunningham and (Jean-Philippe) Peguero.
"We'll definitely be more of an attacking team than we were last year."
For Henderson it's nice just to be able to have stayed home in the Denver area where he's played for six of the last nine years. After his contract expired with MLS he wasn't sure if he'd be back with the Rapids. Oh he had options as there were other teams around the league asking for a trade but it wasn't certain that he'd be staying in Colorado -- the place he wanted to be -- as the coaching search went on and on over the winter to replace Tim Hankinson.
But once Clavijo got the job Henderson was quickly informed that he was part of the new staff's plans which resulted in a new multi-year contract with the league.
"Fernando knows what I can do he said. "He's someone I've known for a very long time and have played with. I've gone through tough days of double sessions with him and I remember him as a teammate and as a player. So there's a lot of respect there. Having him here in Colorado it's like a whole new chapter for me."
After playing in 256 matches for the Rapids Kansas City Wizards and Miami Fusion over the first nine seasons of the league many a chapter has already been written. There's hardly a player out there as qualified to talk about the progression of Major League Soccer and how it has changed over the years as Henderson is.
Looking back now he says he can still vividly remember watching Alan Rothenberg and Sunil Gulati sign U.S. national team players to MLS deals while out at their training center in Mission Viejo Calif. back in 1995 and wondering how the league would do and how long it would last.
"You just didn't know back then says Henderson who was playing with Stabaek in the Norwegian First Division before signing with the league. "But then all of a sudden it all started and it was magical. I'm so glad I played in '96. There were all these international players and there were lots of fans in every stadium. We'll never have that back again -- the newness and magic of it all when the league started. Growing up in Seatlle watching the NASL it was a dream to get a chance to play in America.
"For me signing with MLS for that first year was the best move of my career."
Henderson didn't plan on being an MLS lifer. After leading the Rapids to the Western Conference final in 1997 the then-27-year-old was offered a contract by Nottingham Forest in England. Unfortunately the deal did not go through at the final stages because he was denied a work permit. While Henderson says that it was somewhat of a letdown for him to return to the Rapids in 1998 he's never looked back.
"Each year I've been happy here he says. "To look around and see a league that I know isn't going anywhere is amazing. It's a league that my son Aidan can grow up and aspire to play in."
What has impressed Henderson the most over the years is how top players like Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley could develop here in MLS and compete for spots on the national team with players who make a living as professionals in Europe. Henderson remembers how the fate of the U.S. team rested on whether the European-based players were going to be on the roster or not.
"Bruce Arena has 22 players out here in Colorado right now he says. "They are all MLS players. And sure guys like Claudio Reyna in Europe would help this group but if that team he has played on their own they'd do just fine. It wasn't like that 10 years ago."
Henderson also makes a point about the depth of the league saying that the reserve league that's being instituted this coming season would not have worked back in 1996.
"For the first few years of the league there wasn't enough good players to have a quality level in a reserve league he says. "The player pool is much much bigger than it was during those early years. That's one of the biggest changes I've seen."
The development of Major League Soccer and youth players in this country in general is especially important to Henderson now that he's in his mid-30s. Having spent time as a coach for the Colorado Rush -- one of the top youth clubs in the United States - he says he'll probably get his USSF "A" license at some point and explore coaching opportunities after his playing career is through. He says he may also give his neighbor a call -- a man by the name of Phil Anschutz -- and see what opportunities exist around the game on the business/front office side of things.
Again that's in the not-so-near future. Feeling as young as ever and believing his side can be as good as the 2002 team with Carlos Valderrama which Henderson thinks was stronger than that MLS Cup finalist juggernaut in '97 the soon-to-be 10-year veteran of MLS isn't thinking about retirement just yet.
"I love the game so much he says "and I want to keep playing as long as I can."
Marc Connolly writes for ESPN.com and several other publications. This column runs each Wednesday on MLSnet.com and Marc can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Soccer or its clubs.