Gershon Henry and Gabriel Oksanen are two up-and-coming footballers competing for the Real Salt Lake (RSL) Academy who have both been recognized as potential international footballers by the Finland Youth National Team. Henry and Oksanen most recently were called upon to represent Finland’s U-17 side this past January where they competed against Belgium in preparation for the European Championship qualifying tournament that will be held in Turkey this upcoming March.
Both young men have been successful at the competitive youth level. Gershon Henry was a key piece during the RSL Academy’s U-15 MLS NEXT Cup championship run, appearing as a defensive staple. During the 2022 season, Henry played in nearly every game for the RSL Academy’s U-17 side across all four major tournaments and aided the team in going undefeated during MLS NEXT Flex. Due to this superb form Henry was named as one of the 45 MLS NEXT players to compete in the first ever MLS NEXT All-star game.
Gabriel Oksanen began his youth career with the San Diego Surf Academy before being scouted by Philadelphia Union’s Academy, which is widely regarded as one of the premier development academies of North America. At the start of 2022 Oksanen decided to join RSL Academy to pursue greater development opportunities, and shortly after was called up to the U-17 Finland Youth National Team.
In July of 2022 Oksanen competed in the Nordic Open tournament with the U-17 Finland Youth National Team and again was called upon to play for the Eagle-Owls a second time this past January. However, this was Henry’s first time playing for Finland, an opportunity that he was encouraged to pursue by his teammate Oksanen.
“It felt awesome going to Finland. Playing with them, they play good football out there. Gabe helped me get there, he sent me the coaches email. I contacted them with my film and then they called me up,” said Henry “It was a long journey to get there, but I was excited to play with the guys, the coaches and staff in the country.”
Henry and Oksanen have diverse backgrounds, both having dual nationalities that allow them to play for multiple countries. Players who are chosen to compete at the international youth level have a unique position if they possess multiple citizenships. These players may compete for any country they maintain citizenship for until they play a competitive fixture for that nation at the senior level.
Henry was born in Ghana and was subsequently adopted by his mother who is Finnish and father who is a United States citizen allowing him to play for Ghana, Finland, and the United States. Oksanen was born and raised in San Diego, California to a Finnish father and English mother, making him eligible to play for Finland, England, and the United States. These young men have had the opportunity to train and play with the United States Youth National Team multiple times, yet had little experience with Finland and its style of play until recently.
Not only did these young players have to become acquainted with a foreign style of play, but also overcome the challenge of developing bonds with teammates whose culture and primary language is different than their own. The two young men settled in quickly despite this, learning the style of play and forming connections with their fellow Finnish nationals due to the team's hospitality.
“Everyone there is really welcoming. Finland is a nice country, everyone is kind and the culture there is good. They play with a good style, everything about the team and the culture is a lot different than here but in a good way,” said Oksanen “It was hard getting used to it, especially not speaking the same language but after being there a few times, we feel more connected.”
For both Henry and Oksanen it is a tremendous honor to play for Finland. The country holds a special place in the hearts of the two RSL Academy teammates, because of their parents’ connection.
“For me it’s a blessing. My mom is from Finland, it’s a big part of her life even though she doesn’t live there any longer,” stated Henry. “But for me to go there and play for her; it’s a big honor to play at the highest level of international football.”
While Henry is the first member of his family to represent Finland as an athlete, Oksanen’s father represented Finland on the biggest stage in sport in the 1998 Winter Olympics, where he competed as a snowboarder. Jussi Oksanen tried to get his son to pursue snowboarding as a boy but Gabe Oksanen just wanted to be a footballer. Now Gabe has the opportunity to create a name for himself as a footballer representing Finland, rather than as a snowboarder.
“For me, it means a lot. My dad represented Finland in the Olympics so for me now to represent them, it’s a big deal to follow after him,” remarked Oksanen.
Both Oksanen and Henry represented their families, the RSL Academy, and themselves very well on the international stage, each participating at the highest levels of competition and making the most of their opportunity. It would stand to reason that both young men will have additional opportunities to play at the international level in their years to come.