Defending Henry a lesson for young TFC defender

TFC's Attakora learns what it takes to stop a world-class striker

TORONTO — Nana Attakora has some words of advice for the lucky defenders around MLS that get to face Thierry Henry: Be on top of your game.

“He’s by far one of the smartest strikers I’ve ever played against along with (Red Bulls striker Juan Pablo) Ángel to be honest,” Attakora said after Toronto FC’s recent loss in New York. “They’re both ridiculously smart and you can see that with his runs, the timing of the runs.”

Toronto’s young central defender had the unenviable assignment of keeping the French star at bay, and for the most part he held his own. It was a big responsibility for Attakora, who, as a striker in youth soccer, found Henry fun to watch. When the Red Bulls signed Henry and Attakora learned he’d have to defend him, he knew it would be the biggest game of his life.

But the 23-year-old didn’t want to lose sight of the approach that has made him, arguably, the team’s most consistent defender so far this season.

“I knew that if I looked at him as the Thierry Henry that you see on TV, that could have hindered my performance,” Attakora said. “I could have been nervous and started focusing on the wrong things, so I just tried to view him as any other striker.”

But Attakora knows first hand that Henry is not simply any other striker.

“What people don’t see during the game is he’s actually coaching the players while he’s playing,” Attakora said, “and he’d be telling the backline what to do with the ball. He’s just so smart on and off the ball.”

While some critics have questioned the significance of Henry’s signing given his age, there’s no doubt Henry will make other players better—including Attakora.

“Playing against him shows how the best strikers in the world think, how they want the ball, where they want the ball,” Attakora said. “I can take that away because now I’ll be more prepared when I play against strikers of his caliber just knowing what position they can get themselves into and how they like to get themselves into that position. [Henry and Ángel] are so much smarter than a lot of these strikers, and if I can build that aspect of the game, the mental part, and continue to stay focused for 90 minutes, I can continue to develop into a top centerback.”

That would be a welcome development for both Toronto FC and the Canadian men’s national team.