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Six months ago, Kobi Henry was a sometimes starter for a struggling second-division soccer team in Orange County. On Saturday, he’ll have a chance to make history with the men’s national team in Carson.
In between, he won a league championship and emerged as a locker-room leader for the U-20 national team — all before he turned 18.
“Oh my God,” he said by phone from his South Bay hotel room. “It’s been a surreal experience.
“Everything has moved very quickly in the last couple of months. But that’s how it goes sometimes.”
Well, not really. Because the speed at which Henry went from the bench of a USL Championship club to training camp with the 12th-ranked team in the world was so fast it startled even his coach.
“Were we surprised? Yeah, absolutely,” said Richard Chaplow, who played 14 seasons in England, including three in the Premier League, without ever getting called in to the national team. “I mean, Kobi is 17 years old. It wasn't something we anticipated happening for him so soon.”
Surprising, however, isn’t the same as undeserved; Henry has earned everything he has achieved, Chaplow said.
With the Orange County Soccer Club, Henry played all but the final 31 minutes of a season-ending five-game winning streak that carried the team to the playoffs, A center back, he helped anchor a defense that conceded one goal in those five games, then posted a shutout in its postseason opener.
He missed the rest of the Orange County's run to its first USL Championship title after leaving to join the U-20s for the Revelations Cup in Mexico. And that assignment, Chaplow said, paved the way for his call-up to the senior national team.
“He’s impressed and been made part of their leadership group at 17, which in itself speaks volumes about Kobi’s character,” he said. “He's been given the opportunity because of how he performed and the way he's conducted himself with the U-20s.”
Henry is 19 days older than goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina, making him, at 17, the second-youngest player in the camp. Henry and Louisville City defender Jonathan Gómez are the first players called up to national team from a USL Championship roster.
But that’s just the start of the history he might soon be part of. Gregg Berhalter’s team has already won two trophies this year, beating Mexico in the finals of both the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup, before beating Mexico again in World Cup qualifying, marking the first time the U.S. has defeated El Tri three times in the same year.
If the Americans (16-2-3) beat Bosnia and Herzegovina at Dignity Health Sports Park in their final game of 2021 on Saturday, they will finish with 17 wins, most ever in a calendar year. A shutout, meanwhile, would equal the U.S. record of 12 in one year, while a goal, the 46th, would be the second most in a year.
"It's been a good year so far, but it's not done,” said Berhalter who, with a record of 30-7-6 in 43 matches, reached 30 victories quicker than any manager in national team history. “We have another game and we get to evaluate some new faces, guys we haven't seen before that we're really interested in working with, and then finally keep the core players of this domestic group moving."
On a more minor note, if Henry gets on the field he’ll become just the second player named Kobi to earn a cap with the national team. The first, Cobi Jones, played in a record 164 games and three World Cups.
“Hopefully I can live up to his name,” Henry said.
In the meantime, the teenager is trying to soak up as much as he can by training alongside veterans such as Aaron Long and Walker Zimmerman, whom Henry had only seen previously on television.
“I’m learning a lot from the center backs and seeing each other’s games and how I maybe relate to them or are different from them,” he said. “It’s learning as well as competing because that’s also a really important aspect: to try to make my make with the men’s national team.”
The surprise call-up is Henry’s first, after all. Now it’s up to him to make sure it won’t be his last.
“I have the mindset of trying to prove myself to get called up to the  qualifiers,” he said. “It’s a little bit of learning but a lot of competing. Every day I’m trying to outwork the guy next to me even if he may be a bit older, even if I used to watch him on TV.
“I still keep my competitive mindset and that’s really what I’m working for, to maybe make my mark on the team and hopefully get called in again.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.