FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Bruce Arena and his staff worked the phones during the early stages of Thursday afternoon’s MLS SuperDraft. Arena had his sights firmly set on University of Virginia center back Henry Kessler, but he wasn’t confident the Generation adidas signing would still be on the board by the time the New England Revolution selected at sixth overall, so he explored moving up.
New England’s attempts to trade up didn’t materialize, however, and they were left to sweat it out as the first five picks came off the board. Robbie Robinson to Inter Miami at No 1. Jack Maher to Nashville SC at No. 2. Dylan Nealis to Inter Miami at No. 3. Ryan Raposo to Vancouver at No. 4.
By the time Orlando selected Daryl Dike with the fifth overall pick, the Revs knew they had their man.
“He was absolutely our first choice,” Arena said of Kessler. “If (we’d) picked number one, we would’ve picked him. We were excited. We were a little concerned after the first two picks. He could’ve gone at three, four, or five.”
But Kessler didn’t go in the top five – to New England’s benefit – and even though the Revs ultimately weren’t able to trade up to select him, Kessler was flattered by the attempt nonetheless.
“That means so much to me that they had faith and were willing to risk potentially giving something up to ensure that they selected me,” Kessler said on Friday afternoon from Orlando, Fla., where he’s attending Major League Soccer’s rookie symposium. “It really instills a belief in me, and gives me a lot of confidence that Bruce and the rest of the staff are believers in me.”
Arena’s belief in Kessler is well-founded. Shortly after the Revs were eliminated from the playoffs last fall Arena spent a significant amount of time in Virginia, where he not only attended the Cavaliers’ matches, but also the majority of their training sessions.
It was then that Arena learned all he needed to know about Kessler.
“I’m real happy to have him,” Arena said. “He’s a 6-foot-4 center back, very intelligent player, reads the game well, good passer of the ball, steps into the midfield and wins some tackles, obviously good in the air with his size, and a pretty bright kid.”
Arena didn’t just stumble upon Virginia by chance, of course. He’s a legend on campus in Charlottesville, having won five national championships during an 18-year run at the school from 1978-1995, and he’s also brought a distinct Virginia presence to the Revs, hiring UVA alums Richie Williams, Curt Onalfo, Clint Peay, and Chris Tierney to his staff.
And when Kessler reports to preseason camp next weekend in Foxborough he’ll see a familiar face in the locker room, as his former college teammate Jeff Caldwell was also signed by the Revs this offseason.
“(Bruce) was someone who obviously I knew might be interested, and probably the most qualified person to select me, because he’s seen me the most,” Kessler said. “It’s very comforting.
“In the days leading up to (the draft) my agent had been kind of giving me a heads up about things that might happen. Potentially New England at six – he said that might happen. I was thinking, ‘that would be great if it did,’ and it all worked out. Getting that call from Bruce and that confirmation was a moment I’ll never forget.”
Kessler, who forewent his senior season at Virginia to sign a GA deal with MLS, said he learned much during his three years in college but feels ready to make the leap to the pros in New England, where he can take the next step in his development.
That next step begins next weekend when players report to Foxborough for preseason camp, and the 21-year-old defender can’t wait to get to work.
“(I’ll be) just trying to showcase the best of my abilities in the initial weeks,” said Kessler. “Because I think the first impression is really important.”