Henry Kessler was just three years old when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 devastated his native New York City, so his firsthand memories are hazy. But like most residents of the Five Boroughs, that fateful day lives in his family’s memory, casting a long shadow over the lives of him and his loved ones that lingers to this day.
“Most of my memories are stories that my family members told me,” the New England Revolution’s talented rookie defender told MLSsoccer.com on the 19th anniversary of the tragedy, explaining how his parents and three siblings scrambled to unite at their apartment in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Stuyvesant Town. “There's a chilling image that I have of us on our roof, trying to figure out what's going on, and just being submerged in a cloud of smoke coming from the direction of the towers. So that's something that really brings me back to reality, I think, and levels with me.
“In the coming weeks the streets were flooded with tanks, which is a crazy thing to think that tanks are in New York City. You couldn't open your windows for a month, just because of the cloud of smoke that was coming by,” he added. “Obviously I was very young, but my parents had plenty of friends that died that day. So, it's a tough day for New Yorkers, tough day for Americans, really a tough day for the world.”
Kessler’s reality as a city kid was, and still remains, deeply interwoven with his experiences in the sport. He shared a bedroom with his two brothers and one sister in their 900-square-foot apartment, cramped conditions which can only have made Gotham’s soccer pitches that much more enticing.
“You have to be resourceful, but there are fields and there are plenty of people that want to play the sport in New York, very diverse communities,” he said, recalling childhood games at places like Pier 40, a sports complex that juts out into the Hudson River. “And you see that in the sport. I loved growing up in New York.”
Embracing the game at a young age, he showed enough potential to be welcomed into the New York Red Bulls’ vaunted youth system at age 12, an opportunity that required him to make a long reverse commute out to New Jersey for training sessions via public transportation. Things didn’t pan out with RBNY, however, and Kessler had to find a different, longer route to pursue his dream of becoming a professional player – both metaphorically and literally.
With NYCFC’s academy still in its conception phase at that point, he moved to Connecticut club Beachside SC, where he had a shot at more regular playing time in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. But he would have to make his way out to training sessions and games on his own.
“I took the subway to Grand Central Station, and then took Metro North from Grand Central Station to Bridgeport, Connecticut,” Kessler explained. “And then from Bridgeport, Connecticut, walked or had a teammate pick me up from that train station and bring me to the field, which took two and a half hours each way.
“You’ve got to want it,” he added. “If there are opportunities out there, you'll find one. And if you're looking for an excuse, you’ll also find one. So I think a lot of people would’ve said that’s too far. But I think it really did help me, and obviously it worked out.”
Kessler’s exploits on the field got him recruited by NCAA powers University of Virginia, and he still found time to earn high marks at Bard High School Early College, where students complete their high-school coursework in two years and begin college-level studies as juniors. By the time he departed for Charlottesville, he had his associate’s degree in hand.
Three standout seasons with the Cavaliers, including a trip to last year’s College Cup final, helped him secure a Generation adidas contract offer from MLS and he’s continued his upward trajectory in the pros. (His younger brother Reed is currently a redshirt freshman at UVa.)
This is really, really good from Henry Kessler. pic.twitter.com/2nXdeDzIzF— Matthew Doyle (@MattDoyle76) August 30, 2020
Showcasing a keen soccer IQ and deceptive quickness relative to his 6-foot-4 frame, he’s become a regular starter with the Revs and a leading Rookie of the Year contender. Along the way he’s shown up not only those who doubted his ability to keep pace at this level but the many voices dismissing the SuperDraft in recent years.
“Honestly, this is a really big country, it's not like there are MLS academies everywhere,” Kessler pointed out. “Myself, I did grow up in a place where there was an MLS academy, but say you grow up in a place where there isn't one. Then you play for a club, go to college and then you're eligible for the draft. That's still a very viable option. And so that kid that grows up in Montana, you’re saying that he can't be good at soccer? That doesn't make any sense to me.”
Kessler, who may have a line on a European passport, now aims to sustain his unexpected success story as the Revs target not only MLS Cup Playoffs qualification, but a high enough perch in the standings to earn a home postseason game or two, starting with this weekend’s visit to in-form Philadelphia.