Henry Kessler is a hot name in the MLS right now.
The rookie center back has appeared in each of the ten regular season games this season for the New England Revolution, starting in five of the past six. He’s arguably been the Revolution’s best defender this year and he’s only 22-years-old. A strong candidate for MLS Rookie of the Year, Kessler is garnering a lot of league-wide attention.
Who is this budding star, and how’d he get to where he is today?
Early Beginnings in the Big Apple
Born in 1998, Kessler’s roots lie in New York City. He was born into an athletic family; his dad was a two-sport athlete at Harvard and his mom played lacrosse at Villanova. He grew up alongside two older sisters and a younger brother, talented athletes in their own right. (His brother, Reed, currently plays for the men’s soccer team at the University of Virginia.)
Henry’s earliest memory with soccer dates back twenty years ago, when he joined his two sisters at their recreational soccer practice. As he recalls, his skills impressed his sister’s coach, providing him with a spark of confidence - unbeknownst to him at the time, this tendency to impress was no anomaly.
Growing up in the city provided Henry with limitless opportunities to play the game he came to love; nearby parks constantly hosted pick-up games and dialogue about The Beautiful Game chirped at every corner.
“There’s nowhere else I’d rather grow up,” he reflected during a phone interview with The Bent Musket.
Henry’s marriage with soccer quickly developed. By elementary school, he dreamed of a professional career.
“In elementary school they ask you what you want to be when you grow up and my answer was a pro soccer player,” he said. “That really never changed. I feel like people give up on their dreams as they get older but it’s something I always pursued and always have loved. I knew that if I dedicated myself that I could do it.”
Finding a Balance: Academy Soccer and Academics
Kessler first broke into the competitive soccer realm with the prestigious New York Red Bulls Academy, a club with a proven track record of development. The Academy trains at the same facility as the first team and has produced a litany of professional players, including Tyler Adams, Juan Agudelo, and Timothy Weah.
After spending his U-13, U-14, and U-15 seasons with the Red Bulls, Kessler transferred to Beachside SC in Connecticut which also competes in the U.S. Developmental Academy League.
Henry’s commute to Beachside practices wasn’t easy. First, he would take the subway to Grand Central Station where he’d link up with the metro en route to Bridgeport. From there, he’d hop into a car and ride with a friend to practice. In all, the round trip took about five hours.
“Even with the five hour commute it was worth it,” he said. “It was really important for me at that time to be playing on a good team like that and make sure I’m getting good exposure.”
Soccer undoubtedly soaked up a large chunk of time for Henry, but he never failed to fit academics into the puzzle. In high school, he attended Bard High School Early College, which has an acceptance rate lower than Harvard’s. There, he finished his high school degree in a couple years and spent the latter two years completing his associate’s degree with Bard College.
“[Academics were] something my parents stressed a lot. My dad went to Harvard and my Mom went to Villanova. It’s something that from a very early age they emphasized the importance of. I made sure to dedicate a lot of time to my studies.”
Success in Charlottesville
Henry’s success with Beachside earned him numerous offers from collegiate programs, but one team stood out.
“I chose UVA because I thought it was the best soccer school I received an offer from. With that goal in mind that I wanted to be a pro I thought that’d give me the best chance.”
The University of Virginia (UVA) holds a high reputation on the collegiate level. Seven-time national champions and eleven-time conference titlists, winning culture is a staple of the program. Notably, current New England Revolution coach Bruce Arena coached UVA to five national championships in six years in the 1980s and early 1990s.
“You would hear [Arena’s] name,” Henry said. “We also had photos of all the national championship teams outside of our locker room, so you saw his face a lot.”
Henry saw action in all three of his years with the ‘Hoos, but didn’t start to truly breakout until his sophomore campaign in 2018. He started in 16 games that season, anchoring a defense that ranked 13th in the nation in goals against average (0.675). He was also named a Second Team United Soccer Coaches All-Region player.
This momentum transitioned into junior year, when Henry played every minute of all 24 games at center back. His defense conceded just 13 goals throughout the season, tied for the lowest rate in the country. That year, the ‘Hoos stormed through the NCAA Tournament bracket, defeating Campbell, St. Johns, Southern Methodist University, and Wake Forest en route to a national final bout against Georgetown. After a thrilling 3-3 draw, the Hoyas edged the men from Charlottesville in a penalty shootout, 7-6.
An unfortunate ending didn’t dampen Henry’s impressive career for UVA. He finished as a MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalist, which is awarded to the best collegiate soccer player in the country; an All-ACC First Team selection; and MVP of the ACC Tournament.
At UVA, Kessler was coached by George Gelnovatch, an assistant coach for Bruce Arena in the 1990s. Under the tutelage of Gelnovatch, Kessler noted an improvement on the tactical front as his most significant development.
“I had not such a great tactical awareness going into college and I left with a much greater background of how to play tactically,” he said. “I started to understand the dynamics and movements and different formations. It was [also] the first time we actually scouted opponents.”
After his impressive 2019 season, Henry decided to forgo his final year of eligibility to enter the MLS SuperDraft.
Fulfilling a Dream
New England Revolution Sporting Director and Head Coach Bruce Arena spent a significant amount of time scouting Kessler at UVA, watching several games and attending the majority of their training sessions. After his time in Charlottesville, Arena knew that Kessler was their number one guy.
Holding pick six in the draft, the Revolution feared that they weren’t high enough to snatch Kessler. They tried to trade up, but negotiations fell through.
Robbie Robinson was the first name off the board. Then Jack Maher. Then Dylan Nealis. By pick six, Kessler remained available.
The Revolution got their guy.
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Since as early as I could remember, I dreamed about becoming a pro soccer player. Today that dream came true. This amazing day was made even better by amazing people. Honored to have been selected by @nerevolution and can’t wait to get started #2020mlssuperdraft #longlegs
Ever since the draft on January 9th, Kessler’s impact has been nothing short of impressive for the New England Revolution. The rookie has appeared in each of the ten regular season games this season, starting in seven. He’s also earned man of the match honors in two games. The boy who impressed a recreational coach at two-years-old was now making an impression on America’s biggest stage.
“He’s done very well. He’s arguably been our best center back in terms of defending,” said Bruce Arena. “He’s a hard worker, he listens. He’s done well with the minutes he’s had in this really jammed-up kind of schedule we’ve had. I think he’s adjusted quite well.”
A testament to his efforts, Kessler has cemented his name in MLS Rookie of the Year discussion, leading all rookies in minutes played (743). His biggest rival for the award is Daryl Dike of Orlando City SC—reigning MLS Player of the Month—who played with Kessler at UVA.
In recent weeks, Kessler and Farrell appear to be Arena’s favorite center back pairing. The two defenders possess complementary skill sets, but perhaps most important to their collective success is their strong rapport.
“I can’t tell you how nice it is to play next to Andrew,” said Kessler. “Super experienced guy and he’s a really good leader. He’s always encouraging, talks well, communicates really well. I really love playing with him.”
Farrell shares a similar sentiment.
“He’s a great player and has such a high ceiling, and the future is going to be bright for him,” Farrell said. I love playing with him and I think he’s done really well so far. I expect him to keep playing at a high level.”
A physical, level headed, and technical defender, Kessler’s diverse repertoire shapes him into a promising candidate for higher levels of soccer.
“I really would love to play for the national team,” he said. “ I would love to play in the World Cup. I set the bar high for myself and these are goals I’d love to meet.”
Teammates share a similar goal for Kessler, namely Andrew Farrell.
Andrew Farrell on #NERevs teammate Henry Kessler:— Tom Bogert (@tombogert) April 28, 2020
“Henry Kessler is going to be a national team center back. You can quote that, because I told him I need his jersey when he gets his first call-up."
Interestingly, he’s also working on acquiring an Irish passport to open another door to international competition.
“My mom’s an Irish citizen so I’m working on getting my passport from Ireland now,” he said. “But obviously playing for either national team would be a great honor.”
If he continues on his current trajectory, the sky’s the limit for Kessler.