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SSFC Spotlight: Henry Kessler stands out at annual winter camp

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The center back could be a solid option moving forward.

Soccer: International Soccer Friendly-Bosnia & Herzegovina at USA Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The United States Men’s National Team’s annual winter camp tends to produce a player that impresses the coaching staff and raises his profile within the program. This year, Henry Kessler may inhabit the role, having earned praise and helped to maintain a shutout in the 1-0 victory over Bosnia and Herzegovina. The 23-year-old center back recently completed his second season with the New England Revolution, continuing to develop and gain experience in Major League Soccer.

Kessler was born in New York City and began competing for the New York Red Bulls Academy but departed after being told to “not expect playing time.” His next move was to Beachside Soccer Club in Connecticut, which required a five-hour round trip commute. The star student graduated high school in two years and “earned his associate’s degree from Bard College.” Despite being accepted into Harvard, he chose to attend the University of Virginia and took a “gap semester” before enrolling.

“I think the ACC helped with my preparation,” he told the Boston Herald. “Every week you are facing great competition and almost every ACC game is a top-25 matchup. That prepares you well and there are just a lot of quality players in the league.”

The center back spent three seasons with the Cavaliers, gradually increasing in prominence, starting with sporadic minutes as a freshman. In his second year, he started 16 matches and earned Third-Team All-Conference honors, having learned proper movement and developed “tactical awareness.” His summers were spent with AC Connecticut in the USL Premier Development League (now League Two).

As a junior, Kessler anchored the back line that led the country in goals against average and shutouts, earning a collection of accolades, including multiple All-American First and Second Teams, MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalist, All-ACC First Team, Most Valuable Player of the ACC Tournament, and College Cup All-Tournament Team. Virginia won the ACC Conference Tournament and advanced to the College Cup final, losing in penalties to Georgetown. He was considered an elite prospect, with some managers describing him as a potential top draft pick.

Graduating after two-and-a-half years, Kessler signed a Generation Adidas contract and was selected sixth overall in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft by the New England Revolution. In his first season, he earned a starting spot in preseason and played 26 matches in all competitions, advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals on the eighth-seeded team. His first professional goal came against the Montreal Impact (now CF Montréal), a well-taken volley off a corner kick. With the rookie leading in interceptions, tackles, and clearances, the defense set a club record for goals against average.

“He’s done very well,” Bruce Arena told The Bent Musket. “He’s arguably been our best center back in terms of defending. 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.”

In 2021, Kessler made 29 appearances for the Revolution, helping the team to the 2021 Supporters’ Shield. He worked to improve his decision-making, becoming a better advanced passer and looking to break lines. The league named him to Team of the Week for Week 33, the culmination of a year’s worth of steady play. According to MLSSoccer.com, the 23-year-old may be able to acquire a European passport, which could ease the process for a transfer to Europe.

At the international level, Kessler was eligible to play for Ireland – through his mother’s citizenship – and the United States. He joined the latter program this year, being named to the under-23 roster for the CONCACAF Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship. The defender started and played in three matches at the competition, which saw Jason Kreis’ side fall in the semifinal round to Honduras.

Following the injury of Walker Zimmerman, Gregg Berhalter added Kessler to the senior national team midway through last summer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. He made a cap-tying cameo appearance in the final against Mexico, helping see out the victory. Prior to the friendly against Bosnia, the manager cited the defender as a standout that had a “good camp,” one of the standouts during winter training.

“Whenever I’m [with the national team], I’m always learning,” Kessler told 90Min in October. “Even just being there, around the guys on the sidelines, is a valuable experience… I think I’m in the conversation… I think it’s going to be difficult to get in this World Cup cycle. They’re already in qualifying… But there’s always a chance and I’ll stay ready. And I’ll be ready for that opportunity and I hope it comes. But in terms of the World Cup, which is the tournament that everyone wants to play in, it’s going to be difficult, not impossible, but it would be difficult.”

Standing 6’4”, Kessler possesses the prototypical build for a center back, statistically in the top-tier of MLS for pass completion, pressures, and blocks. He has been cited for being a “good communicator” that “knows how to step into the midfield and win tackles.” Beyond his well-regarded work-rate and mentality, his greatest strength may be his ability to pair with other players and adapt to new situations. While not displaying spectacular talent, the defender is cool under pressure and limits mistakes, playing safe when necessary.

For now, Kessler is on the fringes of the national team program, slowly being introduced into the back line rotation. While he may not have time to enter into the depth chart during the current World Cup cycle, his trajectory continues to climb steadily upward. His dream of appearing on international soccer’s biggest stage could be achieved at the 2026 edition of the competition, unless winter camp has yielded another late breakthrough player.