Revolution coach Bruce Arena made central defense a priority in preparing for this season. The roster included three veteran center backs, and Arena added another, French-Malian Samba Camara, to fill things out. Just to make sure, Arena selected Henry Kessler in the first round of the MLS Draft.
Kessler might have been the odd man out, destined for development time with the new Revolution II team in the United Soccer League. But Camara failed to obtain a work visa, Michael Mancienne fell ill, and by opening day, Kessler had earned a place in the starting lineup. He has remained there most the season, and is expected to lead the Revolution back line against the Montreal Impact in an MLS playoff game at Gillette Stadium Friday night.
Kessler has progressed rapidly in a position that is especially demanding because Arena’s emphasis on attack can leave defenders in precarious situations. Kessler, who is listed at 6 feet 4 inches and 185 pounds, has proven himself to be proficient both physically and positionally, pairing with Andrew Farrell.
“I think he’s been our best defender in terms of actual defending,” Arena said. “We have a lot of confidence in him.”
Kessler, 22, has been preparing himself for this role for as long as he can remember. When he was in grade school, he told teachers he planned to be a professional soccer player.
“I didn’t grow up playing soccer, but I had a number of injuries in football,” said Kessler’s father, Fred. “I wanted to get my boys involved in soccer early and, hopefully, get some traction so they wouldn’t pressure me to play football.
“One day, we brought him to his sister’s practice. He was 2 years old and he went out and dribbled through a set of cones, and the coach said: ‘He’s going to be a pro!’
“But to have it happen is a whole other thing. It wasn’t the plan.”
Kessler competed for the New York Red Bulls Academy but was cut as a 16-year-old. That might have been a sign to temper ambitions. It also left him scrambling to find another club, and he ended up with Beachside Academy in Connecticut, a five-hour round-trip commute from his lower Manhattan home via public transportation.
“He was doing homework coming back on the train, wearing sweaty sweats,” Fred Kessler said. “One thing about the kid, he had the desire, and if you have that, it can take you a long way. He was mentally tough.
“Not many kids worked that hard at that high level, practicing four days a week and a game on the weekend. He said, ‘If you want an excuse, you’ll find them, and if you don’t, you won’t. This is what I’ve got do to achieve my dream.’ "
Nor did Henry take an easy route in education, attending Bard High School Early College, earning a high school degree in 10th grade and a college-level associate degree by 12th grade.
He might have attended Harvard, where his father played varsity lacrosse and freshman football, and his sister was on the sailing team, but instead went to the University of Virginia, where he was joined by younger brother, Reed, also a defender.
Kessler blossomed last season as a junior, being named ACC tournament MVP and making the NCAA College Cup all-tournament team as the Cavaliers reached the title game.
The Revolution selected him sixth in the first round of the draft, one pick after Orlando City took Virginia forward Daryl Dike.
Less than three months after the collegiate season, Kessler started for the Revolution in a 2-1 loss to the Impact in the season opener.
“For sure I believe in myself,” Kessler said. “I’m someone who thinks if you don’t believe in yourself first, no one else will.
“It’s important to be confident on the field, because if you’re not, then you limit your potential.”
Defending for the Revolution can be a high-wire act. The two center backs play high — close to the halfway line, even going past it — in an attempt to squeeze the opposition. The outside backs are encouraged to go forward, so they are often moving into the opposing penalty area.
Most Revolution foes set up to counterattack, awaiting a turnover and hoping their attackers can run into huge amounts of space in front of goalkeeper Matt Turner. If these counters are not short-circuited early, Farrell and Kessler are left on their own to keep things from falling apart.
Experience is essential in negotiating the risks. But Arena is willing to throw young central defenders into the mix directly out of college. In 1996, Eddie Pope powered the D.C. United defense, scoring the deciding goal in the first MLS Cup final at Foxboro Stadium. When Arena revived the Los Angeles Galaxy, the central defense was led by Omar Gonzales as they went on to win three MLS Cup titles from 2011-14.
“For the most part, what I saw at Virginia I’ve seen here,” Arena said. “What he’s better at, maybe I didn’t appreciate, is how well he defends away from the ball and gets into good covering positions for teammates. He’s cut off a lot of plays that could’ve been dangerous because he’s pretty alert and he sees breakdowns around the field.
“I think probably Henry is a little closer in his style of play to Omar than Eddie Pope in that — not that Eddie is small by any means — but they are both about 6-4 and utilize their size well in winning balls and reading plays and all of that.
“Eddie was, I would say, more athletic than the two of them. But both have a lot in common in that they were young, athletic, enthusiastic young players that got better each and every game. I think that’s been the case with Henry. He’s made a lot of progress.”
The Revolution also place a premium on clean tackling from the back line. Their four central defenders have committed a total of 25 fouls, fewer than many single defenders in the league. Kessler has been whistled for 13 fouls and received two cautions.
“I think early on in the season and in preseason as well I was maybe getting a few too many yellow cards,” Kessler said. “So Bruce reminded me to just be careful, and some of the tackles I made in college could even be red cards, so he reminded me that this league is refereed differently and perhaps some of the challenges I make weren’t acceptable.
“So having that reminder in the back of my head, I think I was maybe a bit more cautious. I know for sure if I can’t get to a ball then I’m not going to take that risk.”
This season, the Revolution have played only once before a home crowd, in the second game of the season March 6. Kessler made the second of his 19 pro starts that day.
“I know from living it how passionate Boston fans are for their sports,” said his father. “For him to step in, a young guy and new guy, and them to embrace him is a wonderful thing.”