Of all the non-goalkeeper positions, center backs are typically the last to develop, as the role requires a mental and physical maturity often gained from age and match experience. With central defender the most important spot in the formation at the international level, any player displaying an early aptitude is given increased attention despite the longer-term development process. Kobi Henry has stood out from a young age, already two seasons into his professional career. The 18-year-old competes with the Reims reserves but appears to be on a strong upward trajectory.
Born in Lakeland, Florida, Henry played with Lakeland FC, Florida Rush, Orlando City SC, and Inter Miami, enjoying the development process in the later set-up. In June of 2020, he signed a professional contract with the Orange County SC of the USL Championship, a jump to the lower division of American soccer that is becoming an increasingly traveled road for young prospects. There was interest from Major League Soccer, but the Southern California-based outfit was able to add the “mature” talent with the promise of a pathway to Europe.
“Signing my first professional contract is a dream come true and I am excited to live what I’ve been working towards for so many years,” said Kobi Henry. “Orange County was extremely hospitable to me and my family. The entire staff ensured that we felt welcomed to their club. I was impressed by the work ethic and passion that was displayed during my visit and I felt at home in Orange County.”
In his first season, Henry made four appearances, learning how to deal with the speed of play. The next year, he featured in 19 matches at center back, adjusting to the physicality of USL while being mentored by former national team member Michael Orozco. The teenager scored his first professional goal in a 3-0 victory over Oakland Roots SC and “emerged as a key member of the back line.” Orange County claimed the league championship, with the defender starting in the final five matches of the regular season, all victories. After featuring in the playoff opener, international duty kept him away for the rest of the year.
To start 2022, Henry played in seven matches and scored again, this time an eye-catching volley in the second round of the U.S. Open Cup. In June, he signed with Stade de Reims on a five-year deal following a trial in the winter. The Ligue 1 club with a history of development beat out “numerous offers” and paid a USL-record $700,000 transfer fee to acquire the young defender, with the potential to rise to $1 million along with a lucrative sell-on clause that was a key sticking point during negotiations.
“There was a concrete plan to get Kobi to where we are today,” said his representative, former USMNT goalkeeper Brad Friedel. “We started getting a lot of communication by a lot of clubs in Europe and through our contacts within our agency… And Reims was a club that was interested, but they are a club that develops young players. The most important piece to this entire puzzle is definitely not myself and definitely not just a club. It’s Kobi himself because of his hard work and dedication to the sport and how good of a professional he is.”
Since moving to France, Henry has played every minute in five matches for Reims B, which competes in the Championnat National 2. He is adapting well to the Marne club, earning praise for his defensive abilities. With a stated focus on developing players and “flooding the first team with teenagers,” his promotion to Ligue 1 playing time may come sooner than expected.
As an international, Henry has been a regular inclusion at the youth level for the United States and is reportedly eligible for Trinidad and Tobago. He was a member of the roster for the 2021 Revelations Cup and shortly after received a surprising call-up to the senior team, remaining on the bench during the 1-0 friendly victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina. Last month, Marko Mitrović, head coach of the U-19 squad, named him to the roster for the Slovenia Nations Cup, serving as captain and starting in wins against Malta and Croatia.
At 6’2”, Henry looks the part of a prototypical center back and models his game on Borussia Dortmund’s Mats Hummels. Coaches praise him as a “willing learner” who “buys in” with a good mentality. His shot blocking and tackling are assets, unafraid to sacrifice his body to get to the ball. He is working on his first touch and passing distribution, while also trying to improve his heading ability.
“Kobi has a really nice profile for the modern-day center-back,” writes Marcus Chairez for Chasing a Cup. “He has a nice combo of size and mobility which make him effective in 1v1 duels, both on the ground and in the air. He has an above-average touch and he is an ambitious passer, albeit inaccurate at times… While he can pull off really nice line-breaking passes and long diagonals at times, he is pretty inconsistent and needs to develop more accuracy on his long-range passes. Additionally, his off-ball awareness and instincts need to improve.”
After roughly two seasons as a professional, Henry made the coveted transfer to Europe despite only just having turned 18. He is in a good environment that is providing the opportunity to earn playing time and gain experience, ideally making the jump from the reserve level to the first team in the near future. With the youth national teams back to pre-pandemic schedules, supporters of the United States can monitor and enjoy his progression, which should reach the senior squad, perhaps during the next World Cup cycle.