Doneil Henry on K-League return: “I'm probably in one of the safest places in the world right now” | Charles Boehm

Doneil Henry - Vancouver Whitecaps FC - Close up

May 8

Henry played 90 minutes in Suwon's 1-0 loss on Friday as the K-League returned to action. You can watch the full match below.

May 7 

MLS and the USL Championship are at least a month away from a resumption of match action, and aside from Germany’s Bundesliga, most European leagues remain on coronavirus-imposed hiatus.

There is one North American pro hitting the pitch this weekend, however.

Canadian international and former Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps defender Doneil Henry is expected to be in the starting XI when his Suwon Bluewings visit Jeonbuk Motors FC on Friday for the opening match of the season in South Korea’s K League, one of the few on earth in a position to get underway again.

It’s a reflection of that nation’s impressive management of its COVID-19 outbreak, and another milestone in an unusual adventure for a player who’s had plenty of them in his career.

“We've been training, so we're all pretty much in good shape and healthy and fit. We're definitely excited to kick off tomorrow,” Henry told Wednesday night, explaining how he’s weathered the tumult of a rapid introduction to a completely new culture and setting amid a global pandemic.

“I finally understand what it's like to be a foreigner, speaking a different language from the native tongue here,” he said, “with that adjustment and not understanding things and having to try and pick up as much as you can, as quickly as you can.

“It’s very different to what I'm used to, but it's a country that's built upon strong roots. So I had to do a lot of understanding, too, and compromising what I would usually do. But they allow me to still be myself … [and] I've picked up a few things that I really liked that they do here, and added it to my everyday life.”

Henry became the K League’s first Canadian last fall when he was transferred from the Whitecaps to Suwon for an undisclosed fee at the end of the MLS season. As 2019 Korean FA Cup winners, Bluewings qualified for this year’s AFC Champions League and he started in their first two matches in that competition.

Doneil Henry on K-League return: “I'm probably in one of the safest places in the world right now” | Charles Boehm -

Former Vancouver Whitecaps defender Doneil Henry in action in 2019 | Kyle Terada/USA Today Sports

Then COVID-19 happened, spreading from nearby China to hit South Korea hard in February. At the end of that month the nation had the second-most cases in the world.

“I'm really comfortable in my setup, in my routine, and then boom, the virus hits,” Henry recalled. “Everything changes. It came to a point where I was like, ‘Am I safe here? Should I stay? What’s going on?’

“But talking to the guys here, the medical staff of the [Canadian] national team and everything, we handle things a lot of very respectfully and properly. I find that I'm probably in one of the safest places in the world right now.”

That’s because Korean authorities responded swiftly, cranking up an aggressive regimen of testing, contact tracing and mandatory isolation of those afflicted with the virus. Those efforts bent the proverbial curve dramatically, pushing down the number of cases over the course of March and April until fewer than 30 new cases were diagnosed for two straight weeks, the level of recovery that the government had set as the all-clear for the K League to return to action.

Henry’s experience was complicated by the fact that he had jetted back across the Pacific for the March training camp and two friendlies the CanMNT had scheduled in Vancouver, an event he prioritized in light of Suwon’s schedule being suspended at that time. As an international traveler, he had to undergo a two-week quarantine in British Columbia, during which time the camp was canceled. Then yet another two-week quarantine was imposed on him when he returned to Korea – though you won’t hear Henry complaining too much about that.

“That's when things started to change,” he said. “The tide started to turn, where in North America we were getting hit really hard and then in Korea, the numbers kept decreasing and decreasing. Now we've had, I think, a couple days where we have no cases at all.

“They hit it really hard here in Korea where they were testing everybody and making sure that everybody’s safe, and social distancing. Right now we're in a place where everything is open and people are respectfully going about life and making sure that they’re staying safe.”

Henry has been tested for coronavirus twice so far, and undergoes detailed daily check-ins when he arrives at Suwon’s training ground.

“We're following the right protocols: Every time we feel any kind of symptoms or if we feel sick, we have to report it before we go into training. And when we get into training, we do our fever tests every day,” he explained. “After a day off or something, if we go anywhere, we have a questionnaire that we have to fill out to see where we were, what we were doing, that kind of stuff.”

His message to loved ones back home in Canada, and others around the world: Listen to public-health experts, and follow their recommendations on distancing and staying home.

“I know it sucks,” said Henry, “but it’s probably the best way and the easiest way to get back to a normal lifestyle for us.”

Bluewings have been training at full bore, with no restrictions, for the past few weeks – and the quality of their facilities is such that they could effectively quarantine their squad on site if need be.

“The training facility is like a hotel. Literally, we all have rooms in the training facility; if you have a double day we can go take a nap, sleep there. They provide all of our meals,” said Henry, whose globetrotting career has also taken him to Cyprus, England and Denmark. “The environment is very professional, so we have all the tools to make sure that we're maximizing our capabilities on the pitch.”

Henry does have his own home near the club’s, and says he enjoys his short daily drive to work in what he calls a “very beautiful” country. Though he calls his Whitecaps exit “bittersweet,” he feels welcomed and valued by Bluewings coach Lee Lim-saeng and his staff and speaks positively of their proactive style of play and tactical adaptability.

“I wanted to try and work something out with Vancouver, but it didn't happen like that,” he said. “My teammates have been great. The most important thing is that my coach believes in me and I have a coach that fully trusts me, 100%.”

Bluewings also smooth the transition for Henry and other overseas imports with a translator on the pitch.

“It's kind of easy once you once you get the hang of it – just kind of stay in the back of the line until you figure out what the drill is,” he said with a laugh. “I find that even if you can’t speak the same language, they can feel energy and they can feel positive vibes. That's the stuff that you try to build on and make sure that you're showing that you're working hard, and you get your respect that way, through games and playing.”

With one of the league’s top strikers, Australian Adam Taggart, up top, Suwon aim to contend for trophies again this year. And with so few other leagues in operation at present, they could earn some new fans around the world. Friday’s opener will be broadcast live on YouTube and Twitter, and even with a 6 am ET kickoff, he says plenty of his family and friends back home in Toronto will tune in.

“Real supporters of Doneil are going to be up watching the game!” he joked. “But no, I 100 percent think there's a lot on the line, especially for myself – I represent myself and my family, but also my country, being the first Canadian player to play in this league. So I take it serious. I just really want to focus and just make sure I do all the right things to make sure that I can perform and help the team do well.”