As of Tuesday morning, U.S. youth international center back Kobi Henry became the latest young player to make a move from a team in the USL to a higher-level European league. The 18-year-old is moving from Orange County SC in the USL Championship to Stade de Reims in Ligue 1, the top division in France.
RECORD FEE, CONTINUING A TREND
Henry’s move is the biggest transfer in the history of the USL. Orange County will be collecting a new USL record transfer fee for an outgoing player. As first reported by ESPN, a source confirms to Backheeled that the base transfer fee is $700,000, plus add-ons and a sell-on clause. The eventual fee, the source said, could rise into the “millions”. That’s uncharted territory for the USL.
At just 18, Henry was one of the first active USL players to be called up to the U.S. men’s national team – that was back in December, 2021. His move to Ligue 1 really does mark the continuation of a trend. Over the last year, several USL players have moved directly from the U.S.’s second division to a European league. More than that, those players have been generating revenue for USL clubs via transfer fees.
Junior Flemmings, a Jamaican international, moved in January from Birmingham Legion FC to Toulouse FC, who recently earned promotion from Ligue 2 to Ligue 1 in France. Talented young attacker Jose Gallegos moved from San Antonio FC to SønderjyskE in the Danish Superliga in January. Jonathan Gomez, a dual-national left back, moved from Louisville City to Real Sociedad and played under Xabi Alonso for Real Sociedad B in Spain’s second tier this season. Then there’s Ronaldo Damus, who moved from Orange County to Sweden’s GIF Sundsvall for a reported six-figure fee.
Add in Diego Luna’s move from the El Paso Locomotive in the USL Championship to Real Salt Lake in MLS (along with a handful of other outgoing transfers over the last few years) and a trend becomes very clear. Talented young players are using the USL as a launching pad for their careers. It’s also becoming apparent that players view the USL – and certain USL clubs – as a legitimate path to a higher level.
In an exclusive interview with Backheeled, Henry said that the USL is “gaining a lot more respect” from younger players who are looking to develop and further their careers before moving to new teams. He also mentioned that the USL’s perception among young players is changing for the better as more and more of these outgoing transfers are finalized. When he signed with Orange County back in 2020, both Henry and his agent, former U.S. goalkeeper Brad Friedel, believed that the USL’s Orange County presented him with the best pathway to Europe.
Those same thoughts were echoed by OCSC President of Soccer Operations Oliver Wyss.
“Kobi came to Orange County because he and his family strongly believed that we had the model professional pathway and environment for him to accomplish his goal of transferring to Europe,” Wyss said in a press release.
“When I came across the country to play for OCSC, 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,” Henry, who was born in Florida and played in the Inter Miami academy, said. Later, Henry told Backheeled that he would “definitely encourage more people” to follow his path from the USL to Europe.
Henry is still raw, which is understandable for a teenage center back. However, he’s athletic, has solid mobility, and can win the ball in the air. Playing time is far from guaranteed for him in France, but Reims does have a strong track record of playing young players. Last year, they had the youngest squad in Ligue 1, per Transfermarkt.
“Kobi’s signature is a big step forward for our project,” Stade de Reims Sporting Director Pol-Edouard Caillot said. “Reims has become one of the most attractive clubs for young players – we are the team where young players get the most playing time in Europe. Kobi will continue to grow and develop his skills in a good environment.”
We’ll see how Henry develops in Europe over the next few years.