Major League Soccer

Henry Kessler on working under Bruce Arena, NE Revs' 2021 season & gamesmanship

Chris Smith
Kessler has become a key part of Bruce Arena's league-leading New England Revolution side.
Kessler has become a key part of Bruce Arena's league-leading New England Revolution side. / Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Exclusive - The New England Revolution have blown away everything before them in 2021 but unless they translate that into playoff success, it'll all be for nothing.

The Supporters' Shield is a trophy absolutely worth winning, but it pales in comparison to MLS Cup. It certainly won't be lost on the Revs that just one of the last nine shield winners have gone all the way in the post-season; Toronto FC's 2017 cohort.

"One-hundred per cent, Bruce has put an emphasis on the post-season," Revs centre-back Henry Kessler told 90min in an exclusive interview. "He keeps ingraining into us: discipline, discipline, discipline."

A curious quirk, the lack of Supporters' Shield and MLS Cup double-winners is easily explained by the fine margins involved in the playoffs, with no second chances for teams not at their best on any given day. Kessler says Arena is determined to stop the Revs' standards from slipping.

"In certain games this season, we've gotten away with things that we won't be able to in the playoffs," he said. "The playoffs is a one-off game so anything can happen. It's not even two legs anymore, it's unpredictable."

On the apparent Supporters' Shield "curse", Kessler added: I think there is something to that, but it won't be because we're underprepared or haven't taken our opponent seriously. We'll definitely be ready and we won't underestimate our opponent so, hopefully, we can keep that discipline, and carry it into the post-season."

If any manager is equipped to break the Supporters' Shield curse, it's Bruce Arena. A five-time MLS Cup-winner, the Brooklyn-born tactician completed Shield and Cup doubles during spells in charge of DC United and the LA Galaxy. What's more, the 70-year-old needs just two more victories to tie Sigi Schmid's long-standing league record of 240 wins.

Kessler describes the experience of working under Arena as "invaluable", appreciating his "straight-up" approach to management.

"He's a legend here," Kessler said. "I think he's closing in on most MLS wins by a head coach, so it's been really good to learn from him. His experience is invaluable, he's been in the sport so long.

"So as a young guy, it's valuable for me to learn from him, and just hear what he has to say, because he's been through a lot more than I have. So from that perspective, it's been really good individually."

One of Arena's standout qualities is his ability to cut out the noise and get straight to the point. While he can often appear abrasive toward the media, the veteran coach spells things out in no uncertain terms.

"He's really honest, that's something that I appreciate," Kessler added. "I'd always rather a coach be straight up with me than sugar-coated or something like that, so he's been easy to work with and we get along pretty well. And he also has a good sense of humour so that helps."

Pressed on Arena's no-nonsense approach with reporters, Kessler can't help but laugh.

"With the media, a lot of the questions he's not a huge fan of," the centre-back jovially admits. "He's similar with the players, if we do something he doesn't like, he'll tell us. Same with if we do something good. He is pretty blunt."

Averaging 1.92 blocks and 7.01 recoveries per 90 minutes, Kessler has been an important part of a Revs defensive effort that has delivered 16 of their 20 wins by a one-goal margin this season.

The 23-year-old has enjoyed a rapid rise since being picked up in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft. Kessler's career zenith so far was coming on as a late substitute in the USMNT's Gold Cup final win over Mexico in August.

Though he was only a last-minute addition to the roster due to an injury to Walker Zimmerman, Kessler still learned a lot from being around Gregg Berhalter's set-up - experience he'll use to continue his development.

"Whenever I'm there, I'm always learning," he said of his Gold Cup experience. "There are always things I take away, and I think just the experience of being in a tournament like that and in a competitive national team environment was so valuable.

"It's certainly something that I hope there's a next time. Even just being there, around the guys on the sidelines, is a valuable experience."

Kessler hasn't been called in since and admits he's yet to speak to Berhalter about a possible future call-up. The New York-born defender is realistic about his chances in the current World Cup cycle given the quality in front of him, with the likes of John Brooks, Miles Robinson, Chris Richards, and Mark McKenzie among an extremely talented cohort of centre-backs. But Kessler still thinks his summer call-up proves he's in Berhalter's mind.

"I think I'm in the conversation," he said of his national team prospects. "There hasn't been any discussion since Gold Cup. I think it's going to be difficult to get in this World Cup cycle. They're already in qualifying, I haven't been called in for any qualifying. So then you think, if you haven't been called up for qualifying, it would be difficult to get yourself on a World Cup roster.

"But there's always a chance and I'll stay ready. And I'll be ready for that opportunity and I hope it comes. But in terms of the World Cup, which is the tournament that everyone wants to play in, it's going to be difficult, not impossible, but it would be difficult."

Finally, looking back at the Revs' MLS Cup bid, it's going to take every trick in the book to go all the way, especially when looking across at potential final opponents in the West with the likes of Seattle Sounders and Sporting KC enjoying equally impressive seasons.

Kessler has already shown his willingness to think outside the box this season, launching not one but two balls into the stands in a bid to run down the clock at the end of the Revs' 1-0 win at the Philadelphia Union at the start of September.

It's impossible to speak to Kessler right now without bringing up that hilarious moment. Despite being landed with a yellow card, the defender responded with a laugh and a wry smile, insisting he'd do it again if required.

"I knew this question was coming," Kessler quipped. "Yeah, so I just remember being down to 10 men. I think there was maybe four minutes of stoppage time, it was the 92nd minute, so anything we could do just to buy a second or two would have been worth it so.

"I was already headed to the sideline and got rid of the first ball, and then I saw there was a second ball right there and that I was out of position. So, that ball had to go. And I had to throw it somewhere where he couldn't get it so. Alright, throw it in the stands, you can't get it there. So that's what I was thinking.

"It was worth the yellow card and the fine, we got out of there three points so I recommend if you do try it yourself, throw it as far as possible."

It can often take every trick in the book to win silverware. Aside from his obvious defensive skills, Kessler has pages worth of schemes to deploy in the Revs march to MLS Cup.