Painful as that process might have been, it laid the groundwork for a gradual climb to respectability. Now, even in last place in the league, with multiple key contributors sidelined by long-term injuries – Henderson still laments the absence of center mids Jean Mota and Gregore, whose loss “gutted our team at the beginning of the year” – the RosaNegra can aim higher and swing bigger.
Messi has changed everything, profoundly.
“He wants to be one of the guys, fit in the locker room, fit in with the team, humble,” said Henderson of Messi. “But the first one or two training sessions – we’ll play sometimes half-field, create three, four chances each game. When he started playing, we had 10 clear scoring chances in 10 minutes, just either scoring himself or setting someone up with a pass or splitting players – just amazing, in the first week, how he can change a team. So that part to me, just his mentality coming in here, I’m just thrilled with, super happy.”
It’s early days. As impressive as their two Leagues Cup group-stage wins were, the Herons have yet to deal with MLS’s famously draining away travel since Messi hit town. The final months of their season will be a grind, with almost no margin for error if they are to overcome the yawning gap in the standings that separates them from a playoff place.
Yet so far he and Busquets have been model Designated Players, embracing an unfamiliar new environment and elevating the level of everyone around them with limited signs of their own ego or stardom.
“Just six months ago, [Messi] was lifting the World Cup,” noted Henderson. “To be around the best player in the world, of all time, it’s pretty amazing, and it’s exciting for everyone in the building. But I do think it’s really important that things are normal, like, it feels like a team. We kind of protect everything around the players and the coaching staff so they can work, they can focus, and I think that is appreciated. I think Messi appreciates that when he comes into the club, this is his space and the team’s space to work.”
With an unmatched knowledge of MLS’s inner workings and more than a decade of service in Seattle during the Sounders’ early years, Henderson can call on prior experiences in this regard. He points to the Rave Green’s 2016 campaign, when they were languishing in the Western Conference basement in midsummer before the combination of a coaching change and the acquisition of Nicolás Lodeiro vaulted them to their first MLS Cup championship.
“There’s a lot of similarities to the beginning of the franchise in Seattle. You feel now the momentum building and the [new Miami Freedom Park] stadium coming on, commitment from Jose, Jorge and David, the facilities in place now for the training center, adding now to the roster,” he said.
“And now we have the best in the world. It’s only going to help our team and now while adding the pieces around that, you really feel like OK, this is something. If you add the right pieces to balance the new players, you can build something sustainable, something that through core pieces, you can build off.”