It's not often a coach asks a player to be more arrogant. But during a camp for the U.S. Under-20 Women's National Team this past June, that's just what skipper Jillian Ellis asked of Melissa Henderson.
An All-American senior forward at Berkner (Richardson,Texas), Henderson is one of the rising stars in U.S. Soccer's national development program. But at this particular gathering -- the team's final training session before July's Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil -- she wasn't playing like it.
So on the second-to-last day, Ellis pulled the teenager aside and told her not to be afraid to let herself shine. And Henderson, never one to disappoint a coach, wasted no time in heeding those instructions.
"In an inter-squad scrimmage the next day, she scored two goals," says Ellis. "It was just very special. Some of the older players who haven't seen her play very much were like, 'Wow.' She's a very humble kid, but if you can motivate her, the sky is the limit."
Ellis' assessment may sound cliché, but in Henderson's case it's true. The young phenom was one of only two high schoolers (along with California star Teresa Noyola) to be named to the 18-player Pan Am roster. Though she missed the Pan Am Games with a quad injury, Henderson is likely to make the roster for the U-20 World Cup, which will take place this winter in Chile. "She's a player we're excited about," Ellis says.
Henderson's prep resume is just as impressive as her National Team clout. A two-time Parade All-American who stars for Berkner as well as for her club team, the Dallas Texans, Henderson was named Gatorade National Girls' Soccer Player of the Year last season. She became the first junior to ever win the award in girls' soccer and only the seventh athlete to win it as a junior in any sport.
Still, Henderson never plays the role of superstar. In fact, to hear her tell it you'd think she was a second-stringer rather than one of America's next great soccer hopes.
"I wasn't even expecting to get called in for the under-20s," says Henderson, who has committed to Notre Dame. "I remember telling my dad it would be a year or two -- that's if I actually made it. A week later I got the call, and I was like, 'Oh my gosh.'"
Henderson, though, gives herself too little credit. She's worked since she was 4 years old to become the complete player she is today -- somebody who pairs uncanny athleticism and remarkable technical ability with a competitive drive that seems incongruous with her humble nature. "Ever since I've known Melissa, she's been able to take over a game," says Berkner head coach Chuck Brandon, who first saw Henderson play as a fourth-grader and was struck by her skill level and athletic ability. "She can go from what seems like 0 to 60 and back in a flash. She can change the point of attack just by dribbling -- she reads the game extremely well. She's a tremendous player."
A true forward, Henderson can seemingly put the ball in the net at will thanks to her incredible speed, pace and one-on-one ability -- skills she's showcased in several different arenas.
At this past summer's U.S. Youth National Championships, Henderson led the Dallas Texans to the U-17 finals. And in an exhibition trip to England with the U-20 National Team last May, she scored two goals in a win over the Leeds Ladies.
But Henderson, who in her young career has already played soccer on four continents, is more than just a goal scorer. "She's a multi-faceted forward because she can play well face up and can also play well with her back to the goal," says Ellis. "The other thing she has is a defensive presence -- she will work hard to try and win the ball. Those are the things that make her special."
Perhaps no one knows that better than Brandon. He's watched Henderson pour it in the goal for Berkner -- she entered her senior year as the Rams' all-time leading scorer with 66 goals in 47 games -- but he also saw her step in and play defense as a sweeper when the Rams needed a big presence in back last year. True to form, Henderson relished the role change. "I really liked it, actually," says Henderson, who scored 24 goals and tallied 12 assists for Berkner last year after collecting 38 goals and 18 assists as a sophomore. "I like being the last person to chase it down."
Henderson's seemingly effortless play no matter the position sometimes obscures just how hard she has worked to refine her skills. During the past few years, she's made an extra effort to improve her non-dominant foot, defense and mobility.
Henderson is now working on developing a swagger -- a challenging assignment for a player as modest as she is. But as someone who has never met a trial she couldn't answer, there's little doubt Henderson will master that task as well. "She's very humble," says Ellis. "What I've stressed to her is stepping on the field with more arrogance because she can back it up. I don't think Melissa realizes how talented she is. She's very good, and when she realizes it and steps on the field with that confidence, I think it's going to be frightening how good she can be."
Her U-20 teammates can attest to that. And at the pace Henderson is on, it seems like only a matter of time before opponents all over the world see it, too.