At 16, Kobi Henry took a leap of faith, moving from his native Florida to Southern California in the midst of the pandemic uncertainty to sign his first professional contract with Orange County SC.
Joining officially in June 2020, Henry got his feet wet in his first season, but he has really come on in the second half of the 2021 season, becoming a regular at center back at just 17 years of age, for a playoff team.
That hard work has not gone unnoticed, and Henry has been called up to the U.S. U-20 Men’s National Team for an upcoming tournament in Mexico, the first steps in working towards the 2023 U-20 World Cup.
“It feels great to to get the call-up,” Henry told Angels on Parade during an interview this week. “It’s a big honor to represent my country and it almost feels like a lot of the work I’ve been putting in has paid off. I’m just looking forward to going over there and hopefully again, opportunity to prove myself and just showcase what I have to show.”
Henry has made 18 appearances, 16 starts, so far this year for OCSC, and has been a fixture practically in the lineup the past few months under interim head coach Richard Chaplow.
“I met Kobi when he first came to the club two years ago and I met his family and at that point obviously, Kobi was a bit of an unknown,” said Chaplow. “COVID then hit and we only had, I think, a 15 game season at the back end of last year. So that sort of threw off his development plan a little bit, but he is definitely without doubt now got back up to speed of where we thought he potentially could be two years further down the line. And that is credit not only to him, but obviously to his parents and everybody that’s around in that support and to do that.
“Kobi’s come in and done so well that he’s given us coaching staff a headache as a 17-year-old,” Chaplow continued. “You don’t anticipate having to consider him week in week out for a starting position, but you have to because of the quality of his performances. We’ve just played five games and conceded one goal. And Kobi has played in all five of those games. So it’s got nothing to do with with injuries or nothing to do with rotation. Kobi has deserved every single minute of his appearances on the field. And he’s put himself in a great position now, to be called up for the U.S. U-20 team and showcase his talents now on the national stage which he deserves and we’re proud of him for that.”
The OCSC coaches have been impressed with Henry’s willingness to improve his game at the professional level.
“He’s such a willing learner,” said assistant coach Paul Hardyman, who was brought to the club to work with the club’s promising prospects like Henry. “And when you’ve got that as a coach is brilliant, you know you’ve got somebody that buys into it and wants your attention all the time. I’ve sat with him on numerous occasions now doing video analysis with him and setting him tasks and he has been great and he’s always delivered. And it’s helped him I’m sure and that’s led to consistency in his performances.”
Henry is quick to point to what he needs to work on in his game moving forward.
“Recently I’ve just been looking with the coaching staff on things that I’m lacking in my game, per se. I think definitely my first touch, my distribution of short range and long range, my aerial ability and getting to head the ball better and also just reading the game overall and making the right decisions and things like that. That would help me going forward. And definitely, working in practice has been well but but also, game experience has helped me a lot and also going back and looking at video analysis,” Henry said.
Orange County SC have made no secret of their wish to create a pipeline of young American players to send to European clubs in the future, and Henry could very well be the next player sent abroad. While the coaches didn’t want to put a timeline on the player’s eventual departure, Henry admitted his goals are to get to play in Europe and to eventually get called up to the U.S. Men’s National Team. Hardyman noted that the player has the skills now to go to Europe, but like most youngsters, he needs to understand the cultural differences and maturity needed when moving to Europe if he is really to thrive in the future.
Still, ahead of a crucial playoff game on Saturday for OCSC against Colorado Springs Switchbacks at Orange County Great Park, the club recognize the vital contributions of Henry and think this is just the beginning for the youngster.
“There’s been a lot of work going on behind the scenes with him and the one thing Kobi does have is a fantastic character and personality where he just wants to learn,” said Chaplow. “And I think that’s rare. And ultimately I think that’s one of his biggest strengths.”
What do you think? Leave a comment below.