Bruce Arena did his due diligence regarding former University of Virginia central defender Henry Kessler, the Revolution’s first-round choice in the MLS draft last week. After the MLS season, Arena went to scout Virginia, where he coached from 1978-95. Arena did not just attend a few games; he also observed the Cavaliers practices, and he returned to Foxborough convinced.
“He was absolutely our first choice of player to have,” said Arena, the Revolution’s sporting director/head coach, in a conference call last week. “If we picked No. 1, we would’ve picked him. We were very fortunate he was available at No. 6 and we jumped on it immediately.
“He’s a player that we think has great potential. He has good size for a defender, is smart, good communicator on the field, good passer of the ball, knows how to step into the midfield and win tackles.”
That might sound like coach talk, but when Arena says it, it comes with an extra dose of credibility.
Arena has been developing US-born central defenders since building D.C. United’s back line around 22-year-olds Clint Peay, now coach of the Revolution II team, and Eddie Pope in MLS’s first season. Kessler, 21, is not projected as a starter, but is expected to be a top reserve and also could play on the Revolution II team in USL League 1 matches.
“On draft day, Bruce told me it all depends on how I play,” Kessler said in a phone interview Wednesday. “They have a lot of confidence in me and I have a lot of confidence in myself.”
Kessler has been working toward a professional career since he can remember.
“It was a very young age,” Kessler said. “When you’re younger, in elementary school, they ask what you want to be when you grow up. My answer was always a professional soccer player.
“A lot of kids say they want to play pro sports and it doesn’t end up happening. But in my eyes, it was always something I could achieve and expect for myself.
“Growing up, I played most every sport. My parents did a good job introducing me to Little League, basketball, but soccer was my favorite. During middle school, I stopped playing basketball competitively. I’m 6-4 but my growth spurt was very late.”
Kessler displayed his dedication by signing up for Beachside Soccer Club in Norwalk, Conn., which required a lengthy ride.
“Beachside had great coaching, but the commute from New York City was brutal,” Kessler recalled. “I took public transportation to Metro North to Bridgeport; each practice was 2½ hours each way. That was the one negative, but I was grateful for the opportunity.”
When it came to college, Kessler considered Harvard — his father, Fred, lettered in lacrosse for the Crimson in the early 1980s, and his sister, Zoe, was on the sailing team. But the Crimson did not recruit Kessler, so he chose Virginia.
The Cavaliers advanced to last year’s NCAA title game, suffering a penalty-kicks loss to Georgetown.
“After the MLS season, Bruce was at pretty much all of our practices for a good month,” Kessler said. “He got to see me a lot, so he’s the most qualified person to take me.”
Kessler also played for the New York Red Bulls Academy and competed for two seasons with Danbury-based AC Connecticut in USL League 2.
“I always watch center backs,” Kessler said. “But for me, it is Cristiano Ronaldo. His work ethic, dedication, are just unbelievable. I watched his movie and read his book, interview with Piers Morgan.
“I think he’s incredible; everything he does to make sure he’s at the top of his game. I emulate my lifestyle after him and so I’m really making sure to make the correct decisions on and off field and give it my best.”
The Revolution have been inconsistent in central defense since the departure of 2013 MLS defender of the year Jose Goncalves. This season, they should have plenty of central defensive depth with returning starters Antonio Delamea, Andrew Farrell, and Michael Mancienne, plus newcomers Samba Kamara and Kessler.
The Revolution advanced to the playoffs last year for the first time in four seasons. And goalkeeper Matt Turner is expecting the team to improve on that performance.
“Guys want to bring trophies back to Foxborough,” Turner said. “Winning and getting to the playoffs is nice, but we want to aim higher than that.”
The Revolution report to training camp Saturday in preparation for the Feb. 29 season opener at Montreal. The home opener is scheduled for March 7 against Chicago.
“We’ll take it one game at a time, especially after last year, when we struggled the beginning part of the year,” Turner said. “We lost games we should have won, tied games we should have won. With four of our first six at Gillette, we have to take care of business in our home games.”
Turner will miss the opening of Revolution workouts while training with the US national team in Bradenton, Fla. The team had been set for a trip to Doha, but two days before the Jan. 5 start, camp was moved “due to the developing situation in the region,” according to US Soccer.
“It would’ve been a very cool experience to go to another country and be in a new environment,” Turner said from Bradenton. “It all would have been great. Unfortunately, we can’t control things, and I stand by whatever decision was made.
“And credit to US Soccer, from the kit man and performance people who were in Qatar and, all of a sudden, they had to move everything to Florida. They did a great job with the turnaround. At the end of the day, it was just a 24-hour delay.”
This is Turner’s second national team call-up. He was on the bench for the Nations Cup in November and will be with the team for a game against Costa Rica in Carson, Calif., Feb. 1.
“I’m more comfortable but there is still a ton I need to learn,” Turner said. “That’s how I take it every single day. This quality of players is going to raise my level. It’s sink or swim, getting myself to process things faster. If you make a mistake, just got to shake it off and not make the same mistake twice.
Missing the mark?
Several MLS players will be competing in the South American Olympic qualifying tournament in Colombia starting Saturday, including five from Los Angeles FC. But MLS could be missing out on one of the better prospects in the tournament, as at least one team has turned down Colombian striker Ricardo Marquez, according to league sources.
Marquez, 22, has a place on the Union Magdalena roster, but is likely to move on since the club has been relegated, and could be acquired via a transfer fee of about $2.5 million. Marquez has been in the Colombia U23 starting lineup along with LAFC’s Eduard Atuesta and Eddie Segura.