Michael Owen strikes back
NEW YORK -- When those twin golden oldies, Thierry Henry and Michael Owen, emerged from the elevator at the Empire State Building, the blood had drained from the Manchester United player's face. Had Henry scared the bejesus out of him by telling him that he and David Beckham had rigged the TV in United's dressing room to show an endless loop of the Champions League final? Or perhaps the Red Bulls star had merely pointed out the presence of a burly, menacing-looking man in a Liverpool jersey among the gaggle of tourists squeezed behind the ropes on the observatory deck?
No, this was a fear more mundane than Scouserphobia, a malady that afflicts anyone who abandons Anfield to cross English soccer's version of the River Styx. "You really are afraid of heights," Henry said to Owen, as the color slowly returned to the striker's face. "I thought I'd have to hold your hand up there."
"Up there" was a circular parapet on the 103rd floor, an area open only to visiting dignitaries, who are treated to a gloriously unobstructed view of the New York skyline.
"It was amazing," Henry said.
"It was scary," said Owen, who couldn't get over the fact that he was standing at the highest point in Manhattan and there was no barrier separating him from oblivion. "I'm just not great with heights," he explained. "It's really the only fear I have. My wife is afraid of spiders, but I have no problem picking them up and throwing them away."
"What about you, Thierry?" Owen asked. "Aren't you afraid of anything? Snakes? Wild dogs?"
"He's afraid of Irish soccer fans," I interjected, making light of the Hand of Henry.
"Hopefully," Owen laughed, "there will be some at the stadium tomorrow night."
All was sweetness and light on the eve of a game that will go a long way toward determining whether the MLS made a grievous error in soccer judgment (as opposed to a shrewd financial decision) by inviting United and their EPL brethren to pummel MLS clubs in a series of preseason exhibitions.
For more from David Hirshey, check out his columns on all things soccer.
• The All-EPL Team, 2011-12
• Saying goodbye to Chinaglia
• Time to dethrone King Kenny Dalglish?
• In praise of Fulham
• The comeback artists
• Call it a comeback
• Death by Manchester
• The battle for third
• Spurs' title credentials
• EPL's best starting XI
• City handed first EPL loss
• Chelsea pushed to brink
• Fragile egos crossing
• City and United
• Is Newcastle for real?
• The bad-behavior derby
So far, the scoreboard reads brutally in favor of the EPL: eight wins, two draws, two losses, 28 goals scored, 10 conceded.
For Owen, United's U.S. tour means more than just seeing the sights, dancing on tables and being chased down Fifth Avenue by paparazzi. It's his best chance to convince Sir Alex Ferguson that, at 31, he's not just a former wonder boy who became a household name when he lit up the 1998 World Cup with his golazo against Argentina. Rather, he needs to show that he has evolved into a crafty, mature forward capable of playing a significant role in United's quest for its 20th EPL title -- just in case you haven't been following along, the club now has one more than does Liverpool.
The trouble is, this current United squad has enough strikers to field almost an entire team. In addition to the Holy Trinity of Wayne Rooney, Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez and Dimitar Berbatov, there's the newly acquired wide threat Ashley Young, Owen, and a couple of impressive tyros in Danny Welbeck and Federico Macheda, both back from loan.
"It's not all that different than when I first joined the team two years ago," said Owen, settling into an air-conditioned conference room on the third floor of the famous skyscraper. "There was a lot of competition back then for playing time, and I had some great moments. I started a lot of games, I had a Champions League hat trick and, of course, there was that goal against Manchester City."
Oh yes, that goal. The one he scored at Old Trafford in the sixth minute of "Fergie Time" when only four minutes had been indicated. The one that vindicated Sir Alex's decision to bring an injury-prone ex-Red on the downside of his career to a club that would sooner praise the Glazers than adopt a Liverpool legend as one of its own.
"Whatever bitterness there was toward me from the United supporters disappeared with that goal," Owen said. But last season, a nagging groin injury, coupled with the emergence of Chicharito, caused Owen to slip even further down the striker pecking order. "Even though I didn't play a lot, I think the manager felt I added something to the team," Owen said. "We have a lot of young players, and maybe the manager sees me as a senior professional who can help them move to the next level."
So does he consider himself a mentor to Chicharito and Rooney?
"I won't use that word," Owen said. "It's more like at halftime after the manager has spoken, Wayne or one of the other lads will come up to me and say 'What did you think of what I did with that last chance of the half?' And I'll tell him what I think. But I would never impose myself on them. Every player is different, and I can't play like them and likewise, they can't do what I do."
Not even Chicharito? Isn't he, in a sense, a younger version of the Michael Owen?
I think Chicharito is a younger version of Michael Owen today He's probably got to improve different aspects of his game outside the penalty box, but inside it, there are not many better." -- Michael Owen
"I think Chicharito is a younger version of Michael Owen today," he said. "He doesn't play like I did when I was 18. Back then, I would pick the ball up on the halfway line, beat players and score goals. But after all the injuries and time and everything else, I've had to change my game. I've developed into more of a link-up player, finding space inside the box and using my instincts to know where the ball will be played. I think Chicharito is similar to me in that way, only younger, faster and sharper. He's probably got to improve different aspects of his game outside the penalty box, but inside it, there are not many better."
If Owen hasn't fulfilled the boundless promise he displayed when he lived the fantasy of every soccer-playing teenager -- running 60 yards with the ball at your feet and a nation chanting your name -- he can take comfort in his remarkable resilience. "OK, maybe I'm not as good a player as I was at 18, but I'm still playing at the top level," he said. "It's easy to get somewhere, but to actually stay there is something I'm proud of."
How much longer, though, does he think he can perform at a level as unforgiving as the Prem? After all, Owen has had enough serious injuries at Liverpool, Real Madrid, Newcastle and United to send any number of soccer millionaires hobbling in the direction of the golf course (he has a reported 5 handicap), the racetrack (he owns Manor House Stables and owns and bred Brown Panther, who just notched a Group 1 stakes win at the prestigious Royal Ascot meet) or the "Match of the Day" couch. Now that his perseverance has finally been rewarded with an EPL trophy, why does he play on?
ESPN FC on Twitter
Don't miss a moment of the latest soccer coverage from around the world. Follow us on Twitter and stay informed. Join »
"I'm only 31," he says. "If you asked that of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes, it's probably a fair question. But I don't feel like at 31 I'm just coming back for another season or two. Don't get me wrong; I don't think I'll go on playing forever like Giggsy. He may no longer be flying down the wing like he once did, but he's got that body sway that can still turn defenders inside out, even in the middle of the park. I'm not that type of player. Injuries have taken certain things from my game, and eventually I'll have to stop. But as long as I feel perfectly fine and the manager believes I have a role to play, I'm going to keep fighting."
And once he's done? Would he consider following in the cleat marks of Henry and Becks to play in MLS?
"I've not really thought about it," he said. "But I've enjoyed everything about my time in America "
His voice trails off and he flashes that boyish grin that doesn't look all that different from the one that spun heads at France '98. "Except for the heights." he says.
David Hirshey has been covering soccer for more than 30 years and has written about the sport for The New York Times, Time, ESPN The Magazine and Deadspin. He is the co-author of "The ESPN World Cup Companion" and played himself (almost convincingly) in the acclaimed soccer documentary "Once in a Lifetime."