VANCOUVER, BC – After mutually parting ways with English Premier League club West Ham United FC in December, Doneil Henry knew his next move would have to be his “biggest one.”
The Canadian centre back joined West Ham with high hopes at the age of 21 but never managed to break into the first team – partly due to a devastating run of injuries, including an ACL tear suffered while on loan with AC Horsens in 2016.
That injury kept Henry sidelined for 15 months.
Now, more than ever, he needed an opportunity. The right opportunity. He needed games. And perhaps most importantly, Henry felt he needed to shed the label of being “the injured guy.”
“At a certain point, even to get a loan move, everybody said, “Oh but you’re injured, oh you always get injured,” Henry told whitecapsfc.com. “And I understand from a business standpoint, to take a risk on a player like me. The thing is, every time I’ve played, I’ve done well. It’s just that I wasn’t able to stay on the pitch long enough to show what I’m capable of doing.”
“There was a lot of speculation about my injury, my fitness, and whether I’d be able to play again at a high level,” he added. “I always knew that I could come back and play. The question was where I’d play to showcase my abilities.”
Staying in England was out of the question because his work visa had expired. So it was a matter of looking for a new club abroad or returning to Major League Soccer, where he began his professional career with Toronto FC in 2010.
There were several reasons why Henry opted for the latter.
Part of it was the fact that MLS was just entering its preseason, whereas most leagues in Europe were already well underway. Henry hadn’t gone through a full preseason in three years, and he knew it was important to do so to get up to full speed.
Another factor was his familiarity with Whitecaps FC head coach Carl Robinson. Henry was a member of Toronto FC’s academy when Robinson was co-captain with the first team.
And finally, Henry said it was always his intention to come back to MLS.
“It’s an amazing league and it’s the league I started in,” he said. “I know I can dominate this league. I knew that if I came in and showed well, everybody could see that I’m still around. There were a few MLS clubs that wanted me at the time, but I’ve always felt that this was the right choice.”
On December 22, Whitecaps FC signed Henry through 2018 with club options for 2019 and 2020. It took time to get fully up to speed, but after a brief loan spell with Ottawa Fury FC he has now started three consecutive matches heading into Sunday’s Canada Day clash against Colorado Rapids at BC Place (4 p.m. PT on TSN 1/4 and TSN 1040 radio – tickets still available).
And, according to Robinson, he’s been “excellent” in the middle of defence.
Henry, in fact, leads all of MLS with 8.67 clearances per game and is second with 1.67 blocks per game. It’s a small sample size, but the player and coach both believe there’s more to come.
“Do I think he’s got another level to go to? Yeah,” Robinson told reporters this week. “But I’ve also got to manage him to keep him healthy. I think he’s shown in his three games what he can do. He’s been exceptional.”
Henry said he has thoroughly enjoyed his time in Vancouver thus far, calling it a “blessing” to be a member of the club considering its vast history. There’s a real “togetherness” amongst the team and staff, he said, and that’s a stark contrast to some of his previous experiences.
“Sometimes, being so far away from home and being alone in your own thoughts, it’s a dangerous place,” Henry said. “Sometimes you want to stop, but that’d be the easy way out. I didn’t want to be one of those players.”
“This is all that I have,” he continued. “I truly believe this is what God wants me to do. So I’m going to continue to play as long as I can. This gives me the most enjoyment in my life. That’s why I play. The sport has been good to me, but sometimes it hurts you. It’s a lesson. I don’t take it as a negative thing. Everything that happened to me was meant to happen to me. It’s how I bounce back.”
Now 25 years old, Henry knows this is a “pivotal point” in his career.
Not only does he want to represent the club well and start playing regular football again, the Brampton, Ontario native also has aspirations of getting back into the Canadian national team fold. He looks forward to the challenge of helping Canada qualify for the 2022 World Cup, and certainly hopes to be in the mix when the World Cup comes to North America in 2026.
Henry said he’s already had conversations with new Canadian national team head coach John Herdman, and had an opportunity to attend a camp earlier this year, but wants to make his first impression a lasting one.
“I said, when I know that I’m physically, mentally, spiritually, ready to give you my everything, I will definitely want to be a part of your plans if you’ll have me,” Henry said. “Until then, I need to make sure that my club football, my body, my health, is my first priority. Then I can add more. I believe in first impressions. I want to go there and give my everything.”