American Teenager Kobi Henry Makes Record Move From USL Championship To Ligue 1

Europe continues to do what MLS cannot — pay fair fees for USL players.

In recent years, the number of American soccer players moving to Europe has increased exponentially. Normally, these players leave MLS clubs or their academies, but the latest American to move abroad did not follow this traditional path.

He transferred from the USL Championship to Ligue 1 and set a domestic record in the process. On Tuesday, Orange County SC (OCSC) center back Kobi Henry joined Stade de Reims for a fee of $700,000 — the biggest fee ever accepted by a USL club.

The Florida native made his Orange County debut at age 16, months after leaving his home to join the USL Championship side amid the pandemic. The following year, the 6-2 defender became a regular, starting 18 matches for a side that won the league title in the American second tier.

On the international stage, Henry has played for the USMNT U-17 and U-20 sides, and he was even on the bench for the senior side's friendly match against Bosnia and Herzegovina back in December 2021. Although he did not play in that friendly, Henry became the first active USL player to be called up into the senior USMNT squad. 

"When I came across the country to play for OCSC," Henry told OurSports Central, "I knew that if I put in the work and followed the plan the coaches laid out for me, I would have the opportunity to play in Europe." 

Now, the 18-year-old will have a chance to achieve that goal.

Orange County's Pathway To Professional Program

Sending players to Europe is nothing new for the SoCal side. Aaron Cervantes (Rangers), Bryang Kayo (Wolfsburg) and Ronaldo Damus (GIF Sundsvall) all made the move from OCSC to top-flight UEFA clubs within the last two years.

All three began their careers with MLS academies before joining Orange County then left for Europe before they turned 23 (Cervantes and Kayo were still teenagers at the time).

OCSC's Pathway to Professional program is novel among American teams but is modeled after the youth academies of foreign teams.

As L.A. Times soccer journalist Kevin Baxter wrote back in 2019, the goal of the program is that it "will make the USL team a stepping stone from youth leagues to professional soccer."

"Even though the youth soccer scene is very, very good, specifically in Southern California," OCSC general manager Oliver Wyss says, "it’s still not the same when you play in your own age bracket every training session and every game. For these young players to be established and train every single day with professionals, think about how much quicker the development is."

Francis Jacobs was the youngest male ever to sign a contract with a professional club when the 14-year-old joined OCSC back in 2019. A year before, Aaron Cervantes was 15 when he joined the USL Championship side — now the goalkeeper is playing his football in Scotland.

Normally, these players would be competing against high school competition, but the philosophy at Orange County sees playing against professional competition as the best way to improve. These types of signings and the subsequent upward mobility are things rarely seen in lower league American soccer — mainly due to the power of Major League Soccer.

The California club has also developed a partnership with Rangers, allowing for the loans of numerous players between the two clubs. European clubs are recognizing the talent available in the USL, so why is MLS still so obtuse?

The Trend Of USL Exports

Kobi Henry is the fourth USL Championship player this year to make the jump to Europe for a set fee. He joins José Gallegos, who went from San Antonio FC to Danish side SönderjyskE, Jonathan Gómez, who left Louisville FC for Real Sociedad, and Junior Flemmings — a Jamaican international who moved from Birmingham Legion to Toulouse. 

Henry's $700,000 fee now brings the total of the quartet of USL exports to $1.8 million — a figure never before seen in the American second tier.

And those are just the transfer fees that are listed. OCSC's Ronaldo Damus joined Allsvenskan (Sweden) side GIF Sundsvall for a reported six-figure fee earlier this year with a sell-on clause, while Aaron Cervantes' final price could be in the high six figures.

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During the last six months, only one USL Championship player has been purchased for a fee by an MLS side (per Transfermarkt). MLS clubs have largely bypassed the USL when building their rosters. They stockpile young talent in their academies and strengthen their squads with expensive foreigners.

Players moving from the USL Championship to MLS are almost unheard of. But Orange County has shown there is talent in the American second tier, and if Major League Soccer won't take notice, then players can easily be sold to a long list of astute European sides.

"Kobi's move to Ligue 1 shows the platform we have here with talented players that are attracting attention from the best leagues in the world," USL Sporting Director Mark Cartwright said Tuesday

Even with Henry's move, there are still six USL Championship players under the age of 21 with market values equal to or greater than Henry's $220,000 evaluation (per Transfermarkt). 

The USL has long been an afterthought for Major League Soccer — whether it be for finding players or setting up a system of promotion and relegation. Yet the USL still has agency, and by sidestepping MLS and establishing its niche, the USL can prove its value as the viable second tier of American soccer.