Just 20, Toronto FC defender Doneil Henry will mark his 50th MLS regular-season game when he next steps on the field for action.
And he will do it with renewed confidence after an off-season training stint at England’s West Ham United.
After a bye on the opening weekend of the new MLS campaign, Toronto kicks off its campaign Saturday in Seattle against the Sounders (1-0).
Henry has already proved he can hang with MLS competition. Two and a half weeks training alongside Premier League talent showed the sky’s the limit for the young Canadian international.
"It was awesome," Henry said. "I really enjoyed it. They were great guys, great coaching staff. They were really welcoming."
The time at West Ham was facilitated by Toronto manager Ryan Nelsen, who captained Blackburn Rovers under Sam Allardyce — who now manages the Hammers.
Nelsen, whose Rolodex is extensive, chose Allardyce to help his young defender. Like Nelsen, Allardyce is a former centre back and the Toronto manager has first-hand experience of his work with the backline.
Allardyce put Henry through drills himself the first day of training. Henry also left with an appreciation for Welsh international James Collins.
"A great leader," said Henry.
While Henry has experience with the Canadian national team, Toronto FC has been his home.
He became the first player from the Toronto FC Academy to graduate to the first team when he signed a pro contract in August 2010. Just 17, Henry had already made three appearances for the senior side.
West Ham was a chance to broaden his football horizons.
"I didn’t feel out of place," he said. "TFC’s my home. I’ve never been anywhere else, in another professional environment. I thought that when I went there (to West Ham) I really showed well for myself. It really opened my eyes."
Henry remains a work in progress. But the confidence shown by the six-foot-one 180-pounder is plain to see on and off the field these days.
While Henry has made mistakes, Nelsen has consistently defended his young player — often saying he had made the very same blunder himself. Ask the Toronto manager about Henry and chances are he will muse about how much he wished he had that kind of talent at 20.
Henry is athletic and has good instincts, although occasionally takes a little too much on his shoulders. Off the field, Henry is more comfortable with the media. What used to be short answers are now thoughtful responses.
Playing next to captain Steven Caldwell has certainly helped. While Toronto FC once had a revolving door approach to its back four, Nelsen has made Henry and Caldwell his first-choice partnership at the heart of the defence.
Caldwell, 33, is a vocal Scot who is not afraid to direct traffic at the back. Having played for Scotland, Newcastle United, Sunderland, Birmingham City, Blackpool, Bradford City, Leeds United, Wigan and Burnley, he has also been around the block.
Caldwell is a fan of his young centre-back partner. Mention Henry’s name and a big smile creases the Scot’s face.
"I’m very proud of him … I’ve got so much confidence in him and know the player he can be," he said,
"Boy do I appreciate having him next to me with his attributes, his speed, physicality," he added. "It’s a pleasure playing alongside him."
Said Henry: "We kind of feed off each other. And Steven brings my game up a lot. He has a lot of faith in me and I have all my faith in him."
After seven seasons of failure on the pitch, Toronto FC has reloaded this season with such marquee acquisitions as England star striker Jermain Defoe, U.S. international midfielder Michael Bradley, Brazilian forward Gilberto and veteran Canadian star Dwayne De Rosario.
Injuries to Gilberto and others plus the late arrival of Defoe have delayed the start of the TFC revolution. While many players have returned to fitness, some like Gilberto are not expected to be game-ready for an adventure on artificial turf in Seattle.
Still, Henry likes what he sees already, with the star power complementing core players from last season.
"There’s a lot of quality in the team," he said. "And standards are going to be raised."
Henry showed his savvy when he gave up his No. 4 to Bradley. He now wears No. 15, his Canadian national team number.
Only De Rosario (324), midfielder Jeremy Hall (112) and Brazil’s Jackson (91), and fullbacks Justin Morrow (71) and Ashtone Morgan (66) have more regular season MLS games under their belt than Henry on the TFC roster.