Henry Kessler liked how his first two games as a professional soccer player unfolded.
Then, COVID-19 hit the figurative pause button on the Major League Soccer season, halting the former Virginia star’s first season with the New England Revolution.
Thursday, the Revolution’s season resets when they take the field for the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando. Kessler and New England are among the teams competing in the single-site tournament, which means the athletes live, train and compete in one general place with the other teams in the league.
“Always had the dream of being a professional soccer player,” Kessler said. “Did not foresee this coming, and it’s been quite the adjustment.”
After two solid showings as a professional, Kessler felt like he developed a routine. He found comfort in his training and the team’s playing style.
Stopping the season meant Kessler lost his routine.
COVID-19 restrictions changed how teams could train, and it left Kessler with both physical and mental challenges since the team’s last game on March 7.
Kessler decided to view the stopped season differently than some athletes who viewed a stop in training from the coronavirus as a reset.
Some changed their goals and altered their training, looking to improve new areas of their game. Kessler didn’t want to look at the months off like that.
“I think a reset is almost something you do when you’ve started negatively, where I thought was doing pretty well,” Kessler said.
After building confidence from a strong start to the season, Kessler wanted to keep that going.
When it came to initially adjusting to the professional level, Kessler had to go from a leader on UVa’s team that made the 2019 national championship match to one of the youngest players on the Revolution’s roster. In Charlottesville, Kessler held younger players accountable, demanding their best.
In New England, many of the older players demand excellence of the newcomers.
The defender enjoys the level of accountability at the professional level, though.
Everyone expects greatness from their teammates. It made Kessler’s adjustment mentally quite enjoyable.
“I was always a guy who really gets on guys,” Kessler said. “Sometimes even in college my coaches had to tell me to tone it back a little bit.”
At the professional level, players “get on each other” about performing to the best of their ability. Kessler loves the additional competition and intensity.
He’s excited to return to game competition Thursday, amid the MLS “bubble.”
Kessler and the Revolution quarantined for nearly 24 hours upon arrival in Orlando, awaiting COVID-19 test results. The team received fantastic results, with no positive tests.
“Thankfully, we didn’t have any positive tests, so after that things have been smoother,” Kessler said. “We’ve been able to train properly.”
The return-to-play tournament hasn’t lacked COVID-19 issues, though.
FC Dallas withdrew from the tournament Monday after 10 players and a support staff member tested positive for COVID-19.
“Given the impact of the number of positive tests on the club’s ability to train and play competitive matches, we have made the decision to withdraw FC Dallas from the MLS is Back Tournament,” MLS Commissioner Don Garber said in a statement. “The health of everyone involved in our return to play has always been our top priority, and we will continue to make decisions consistent with that priority.”
Nashville SC also experienced issues after multiple positive tests.
New England avoided that fate, at least for now, arriving in Orlando without players or staff members testing positive.
The NWSL also had a team withdraw from its Challenge Cup in late June, but the tournament seems to be safely taking place since it started at the end of June. The MLS hopes for similar results once the tournament begins.
For Kessler, the biggest worry about playing in Orlando after safely entering the single-site tournament location is the heat difference between Massachusetts and Florida. Adjusting to summer in the south may prove challenging for the first week or so.
From there, he’s excited to return to competition on a national stage. Assuming the tournament takes place safely, few team sports in the U.S. will receive as much attention as the MLS in the next few weeks. Kessler’s unusual rookie season could help him and the Revolution gain new fans.
“We have a good opportunity being back before the other sports start,” Kessler said. “Hopefully we can attract more fans to the sport.”
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