Over the past several years, Orange County SC have taken on an objective of developing promising young prospects and helping them realize their dreams of eventually playing at a higher level. The transfer last week of defender Kobi Henry to French club Stade de Reims became the latest success story for the club, as the officially undisclosed transfer fee (reportedly around $700,000 up front, with additional incentives) breaks the record for an outgoing transfer in the USL Championship.
How did OCSC beat out every other team in American soccer to land Henry for his first professional deal?
“There was a concrete plan to get Kobi to where we are today,” said his agent Brad Friedel, in a press conference with reporters after the transfer was announced.
“I was drawn to Orange County because of the plan that they had set out for me from day one, they had it very well organized and I was welcomed with open arms and I was very happy with the whole staff and the team at Orange County,” Henry elaborated. “And they had a plan for me to develop through the USL League and eventually make a move abroad when I was ready for that. So I just went there and worked very hard every day with the platform that they had set out for me and I was able to make my move finally.”
Henry was signed in the summer of 2020 out of Inter Miami’s academy as a 16-year-old. Given the player does not have a European passport to permit him to sign abroad before his 18th birthday in April, Orange County SC laid out a plan for the following two years for the player: See time first in academy play for OCSC, before making the move up to the first team. If he deserved more playing time, he would receive it, and in fact Henry became a regular starter in the 2021 regular season after Richard Chaplow took over as interim head coach.
Making 30 appearances for Orange County’s first team, winning the 2021 USL Championship league title, and experiencing multiple call-ups to the U.S. national team set-up, including a selection to the USMNT senior team in December, Henry has been busy.
For Orange County, Henry’s transfer is another proof of concept of their plan to find and develop young talent.
“It’s a very exciting moment for Orange County Soccer Club, for Kobi Henry and his family and I think in whole for the entire USL championship to not only have a record breaking transfer into a top five division club in Europe, but to really show that with the right structure and the right development, we can produce players here that can actually compete on the highest level. We are convinced that Kobi Henry will have a very long career in Europe and have multiple, hopefully nice transfers, but also make a difference for the U.S. national team. So we’re very proud of Kobi. We’re obviously going to miss him dearly. But he’s earned everything he’s getting now,” said Orange County’s president of soccer operations Oliver Wyss.
Henry is the third high-profile young transfer in recent years for the club, joining goalkeeper Aaron Cervantes’ move to partner club Rangers FC in 2021 and forward Ronaldo Damus, the 2021 USL Championship final MVP for Orange County, who moved to Swedish outfit GIF Sundsvall in March.
Given Damus and Henry played roles as OCSC won the league title last season, Wyss, who has always insisted the club’s objective is to win the championship, says it is possible to both win and develop youngsters.
“I think it’s for us all ambitions, as I always say it’s competing for championships. There’s never a guarantee and a lot of things have come together. But it’s also [to] develop the players and have an entire structure around that player that he has a chance to succeed,” he said.
Henry, a Florida native who lived with his mother in Orange County while at the club, said he learned a great deal at OCSC and the environment was good to help him get a big transfer to Europe.
“It’s helped me develop a lot and gain maturity on and off the field,” Henry explained. “I think something that they really stressed at Orange County is is really just having respect throughout the club and and making sure that you work hard because you really need to earn everything you got nothing is handed to and at that club. You’re given the platform to do what you need to do but it’s really up to you to show the staff show the coaches that you can perform and show that you really want to and so I was grateful for them for having trust in me and giving me the platform to showcase myself.”
While Reims may not be a well-known club in the United States, including to most soccer fans, they have maintained a mid-table level in Ligue 1 in recent years and have built a reputation of being a development club themselves, playing youngsters and selling them on. It’s a step everyone hopes Henry can take advantage of once again.
“For us, this is a milestone moment. It’s the fourth transfer in the last two years to a European club, but this one is obviously the most significant one that we have ever had. It sets a new standard now of the value of these players and also going into a top five club in Europe from the USL championship has shown the growth of the league and what kind of talent is here and we’re not stopping,” said Wyss.
But it all comes back to the plan that Orange County laid out and stuck to in order to see Henry’s transfer abroad.
“Oliver and I spoke I mean from the time he signed until today two, three, sometimes four times a week, and making sure the plan was was going to plan, so to speak,” said Friedel. “We started getting a lot of communication by a lot of clubs in Europe and through our contacts within our agency. And this was a team effort. 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. And also the sacrifices and dedication [his] parents have to helping him. That’s why this all works. So we’re delighted that we’re at this point, but as I said earlier, there’s a lot of work ahead,” Friedel added.
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