Defender Doneil Henry comes full circle, happy to be back with Toronto FC

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TORONTO — After stops in England, Denmark, South Korea and the U.S., Doneil Henry is home again.

Henry, a native of Brampton, Ont., became the first player from the Toronto FC academy to graduate to the first team when he signed a pro contract in August 2010. Then 17, Henry had already made three non-league appearances for the club.

Now 29, he is back with his hometown club.

"This is my home, for sure," said Henry, who re-signed with Toronto on July 22. "I don't feel like I could give any other club what I can give this club. I'm just ready to work."

Henry was flanked by then-TFC director of soccer Mo Johnston and academy director Earl Cochrane when he was announced as the club's first homegrown player.

Johnston was let go a month later. Cochrane, meanwhile, went on to become Canada Soccer's general secretary.

Henry now shares a Toronto locker room with 21-year-old midfielder Themi Antonoglou, homegrown player No. 30 for the MLS club.

"It's crazy because it's almost been a decade since I've been away from TFC but I've always followed it pretty closely. I have some lifetime friends who are still in the changing room, who I grew up playing with," Henry said after training Wednesday.

"I spent a lot of my time on my own over those years (away) and always dreamed or visualized playing back for the club one day. And what it would be like and what it would feel like. Having an opportunity to do it again, I know how much it means to me. And what would be expected from me to come back here. And how much it means to me and my family."

Henry, who joined the Toronto academy at 15, made 92 first-team appearances in all competitions in his first go-round with TFC.

There was a risk-reward element to Henry's game then. As a young centre back, his athleticism often got him out of trouble. But it also led to mistakes.

His journey away from Toronto started almost eight years ago when then-GM Tim Bezbatchenko revealed in October 2014 that the defender had been sold to a club in Cyprus — some six months earlier — and loaned back to Toronto.

Former manager Ryan Nelsen had sent Henry to England's West Ham United for a training stint after the 2013 season with Toronto. Nelsen, a former Premier League defender, saw Henry as a raw talent destined to play in Europe.

Henry credits Nelsen for helping him think through his position, choosing the best option.

"Everything is all about positioning and awareness. And the best teacher of that is experience," Henry said. with a chuckle. "And some of those experiences sometimes makes you look like the villain or a terrible player. But you learn from that … Ryan gave me the opportunity to learn a lot of hard mistakes."

The sale to Cypriot club Apollon Limassol proved to be nothing more than a stepping-stone. Henry signed with West Ham in January 2015.

Loaned out to Blackburn Rovers, he injured his hamstring in just his third outing in the second-tier Championship. After surgery, Henry was derailed again by his hamstring and a sports hernia procedure.

Then he was sidelined by a knee injury, running his number of surgeries to three in 2 1/2 years. He was essentially on the shelf from late 2016 to early 2018.

"If it wasn't for injuries, I would probably be still comfortably playing there," he said of Europe. "I just understand the business so much more from those experiences. How to carry myself as a professional, the day-to-day life (of a pro)."

He returned to action in 2018 with Vancouver, making 44 appearances for the Whitecaps in all competitions over two seasons — as well as a brief loan stay with the Ottawa Fury — before being sold to South Korea's Suwon Samsung Bluewings in November 2019

Just 26, Henry was making a move to his third continent.

"Korea was a nice time," said Henry, whose Instagram account proved to be an entertaining documentary of his time in Aisa. "It started out pretty difficult, because I went there just before the pandemic. And by the time pre-season finished and (we) got back, everything was completely on lockdown."

A friendly group of locals took him under their wing "and starting showing me how beautiful Korea could be," he said.

Henry signed with Los Angeles FC in February, making six appearances before being waived in early July. There was a logjam at centre back with Italian veteran Giorgio Chiellini a high-profile acquisition.

"I understand the business and why things have to be done so quickly," said Henry, who occupied an international player roster spot with LAFC.

Less than three weeks later, he was back wearing Toronto colours. With star defender Carlos Salcedo having returned to Mexico, Toronto needed help at centre back. Henry was available.

Henry is signed through the end of the season, making the remainder of the season in essence an extended tryout.

In his return to Toronto, Henry is more mature and experienced. While listed at six foot two and 182 pounds, Henry looks thicker. A physical presence, he is not someone you want to tangle with.

His 44 appearances for Canada include 38 starts and his return to TFC should boost his chances of being on the plane to Qatar for the World Cup.

"For me, in a World Cup year I'm in a race with time — playing time, fitness and showing my case why I should be there come November," he said.

"I had other opportunities to go overseas, different places, but I knew that if I could get this to work, this is where I really wanted to be. To stay put. And I knew I could play here."

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2022.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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