Just as Forrest Gump tells the story of an American generation through life experiences, Chris Henderson’s playing career overlaps the awakening of U.S. soccer. When he enrolled at UCLA, the college game was king and the national team was a virtual non-entity. By the time he hung up his cleats, clearly it was a different world with the advent of Major League Soccer, Americans regularly qualifying for the World Cup and many of them playing on premier clubs. Seattle’s technical director was asked to look back, now that he’s arrived in the Northwest.
American soccer was revolutionized during the span of your playing career. Have you ever looked back and taken stock of all that’s happened?
I never took anything for granted and always appreciated it, and I tell today’s players not to take a single day for granted because it goes really fast. I got called up to the national team for the first time on Dec. 11, 1989, and 2002 was my last game, and for me it’s like the blink of an eye. At the World Cup, we were just happy to be there in 1990 and 16 years later we were expected to get to the quarterfinals. In 1994, I was one of probably 25 guys– Eric Wynalda, Claudio Reyna, Mike Lapper, Joe-Max Moore, Brad Friedl, among them–trying to make it in Europe. Now you have Americans playing all over the world in the top leagues. It’s amazing how, in a short period of time, the American soccer player has come so far.
Fans were understandably giddy about the announcement of a Seattle team. But it might surprise some that players get just as excited.
There was always the hope that we would get an MLS team and there was talk about it, but there were other cities putting pretty good bids together too. So when it actually happened and they announced it–there was that feeling of ‘Yes! We’re in!’ It’s incredible, and I know I felt like a fan as well.
How do you explain the phenomenon of our Northwest natives so enthused about possibly returning here?
For one, it’s one of the best places in the world to live. It’s a great place to grow up and raise a family, and soccer’s been part of sports here for my whole lifetime. As a player, the tradition of soccer in Seattle is never forgotten. Some will leave, but most come back. You can go back as far as Jeff Durgan for the Cosmos; he found his way back to Tacoma. I hear it all the time, guys like Kasey Keller and Marcus Hahnemann saying, ‘I can’t wait to get back home.’ In my case I wasn’t able to play major league back home, but for me this is the next best thing.
How many times did you really get a chance to play a high level game here, in front of the friends and family?
Let’s see. In 1989 I played for the Seattle Storm, which was one of the highest level teams we could get at that time without a real pro league. Later, we (the U.S. national team) played Russia in the Kingdome in ’94. Certainly that was a big game, with the team getting ready for the World Cup and all that atmosphere. I came up with the Colorado Rapids to play the Sounders in Marysville in ’97. And that was it. It’s always special to show your teammates where you grew up, but also to come back and play where you feel the most comfortable.
Whether playing for the national team or for your club, it seemed as if you could run all day. Where did that fitness come from?
From the very beginning, my older brother Pat had a goal to play in college. So back then the Cooper Test was the big fitness test, starting with the 1970 Brazil World Cup team and continuing into the 90’s. Pat would train for it on a two-mile loop around Silver Lake and I used to go with him. I remember trying to get a close to him as I could when I was 10 or 11. The more I did it, the closer I could stay with him. Building that fitness base as a young player, it helped me as I became a teenager and continued on.
How did you put all that stamina to use?
Being a wing player, there’s so much running up and down, especially at the international level. If you don’t have a strong engine and good speed, you’re not going to be able to compete, and I knew that would be one of my strengths. If I can wear a guy down a little bit, it’s going to help me in the last 35-40 minutes of a game, when I can take him on a dribble. I used it as a strength. It’s something I never gave up on. I always made sure I was coming into camp as the fittest guy. My goal was to be as fit as I could for the position that I played.
How do you feel playing in Northwest prepared you?
Here you can train year round, and that was a huge advantage for all of us. Sure, there are times when it’s cold and wet, freezing rain, but you can train all year long, through December and January. My son in Kansas City plays futsal all winter long inside; it’s too cold to go outside. And I also think, that dating from our North American Soccer League team, there are a lot of very good coaches here, and it shows why there are so many strong young players coming out of this area.
Of all the stops in your career, next to Seattle where did you feel most at home?
Denver. I met my wife there in ’96, our first son was born there and we still have a residence there. The best team I played for was in Miami in 2001, but next to Seattle Denver is where I felt most at home, and there are a lot of similarities in the lifestyle in Colorado and Washington.
From 1994 to 2006, you played with seven teams, including two stops in Colorado. Did those moves take a toll on you?
I can be happy anywhere because I’ve been traveling since such a young age. But once we had kids, moving around made for some tough times. That’s why in 2006 I decided to retire. Maybe I could’ve squeezed another year or two out of playing in another city, but I didn’t want to be telling my kids that they would be the new kids in school again. It’s been a challenge and I give credit to my wife, Dee. She’s had to pack up a house and move every time, and it hasn’t been easy.
You seem to be allured not only by coming home, but also about the building of a team from scratch.
We have a year to get everything in place. No other expansion franchise has had this opportunity, and to be a part of it is really great. I’m sure we’ll have some challenges along the way, no doubt. Still, we all have that the passion for the game. It’s an incredible game and it’s the beginning of something really big for sports in America, the way Major League Soccer’s going. For me to be part of something that in 20 years you can look back and say, ‘Wow, I was part of that when it just began.’ That’s the exciting part. We have a wonderful opportunity to start with a boom in 2009.