Despite having large amounts of resources and a diverse range of sporting infrastructure, the U.S. Men’s National Team couldn’t even get out of CONCACAF, let alone succeed at the global stage. A plethora of issues plague the U.S. soccer community, and grassroots movements have emerged to rectify an entire federation’s mistakes. However, as wholesale changes are advocated, the show goes on, and for a generation of American players, the journey seems to have more bumps than hills.
Only 34 days after a disastrous loss at the hands of Trinidad & Tobago that prevented their trip to the 2018 World Cup, the U.S. Men’s National Team traveled to the Estádio Algarve to face Portugal in a friendly. With most fans frozen in a depressed, dejected state, it was a chance to reverse course, to ignite that essential feeling of hope that is so crucial for America. It was time for fresh faces to prove their worth, to put their names on the radar, and challenge the old guard who became too lax in their blind overconfidence.
Perhaps it was only right that only 1 player in the starting XI remained unchanged between the two matches – that was Newcastle man DeAndre Yedlin, who is the team’s best option at right back. 8 starters were 24 or younger, and 2 players made their senior team debuts. The first was New York Red Bull’s Tyler Adams, who became the 2nd youngest American to receive a cap (after Christian Pulisic). The second debutant was none other than Schalke’s Weston McKennie, whose performance brought him onto the radars of plenty fans who were oblivious to his presence the day prior.
Deployed as one of the center midfielders in a 4-1-4-1, McKennie was given licensed freedom to roam. Alongside Kellyn Acosta, he covered ground, maintained possession, and interrupted attacks, winning man-of-the-match in his first international game. He opened the scoring off a C.J. Sapong pass, cutting inside and finishing past the outstretched leg of Portugal’s Beto. He nearly grabbed a brace in the second half, after his header ricocheted off the crossbar, but even this miss couldn’t dim the sparkling performance the 19-year-old. If the main positive of the night was youth, McKennie was certainly the biggest highlight.
A Texas native, McKennie is similar to fellow national team members John-Anthony Brooks, Fabian Johnson, and Julian Green in that he spent part of his childhood in Germany. Kaiserslautern was the scene of his first love, where he fell in love with the beautiful game. These years of imprinting were crucial: growing up in Germany, it was part of the culture to play soccer – had he spent this period in the U.S.A., he could’ve easily diverted his athletic talents to other sports. In fact, upon returning to the States, he tried his hand at American football, splitting time between both sports.
Ultimately, McKennie made the wise decision of focusing on soccer, joining the FC Dallas Academy in 2009. With a knack for producing talented Homegrown Players, it seemed he made the right choice. He brought the team two Development Academy Championships, and during his final season he earned the Central Conference Player of the Year award. His tenure with the U.S. Youth National Team began at the under-14 level, where he has impressed ever since. It was here, in the youth national team, that McKennie met fellow American Christian Pulisic, and they have stayed as great friends to this day.
What set McKennie apart was his fearfulness. American players have a tendency to refrain from going abroad, instead favoring to stay in MLS to play out their careers. Instead, the then-17-year-old rejected a homegrown contract from FC Dallas, who he had played with for 7 years, and also a full-ride scholarship to the University of Virginia. Defying all odds, he preferred a third option, which was to entertain the interests of Schalke in Germany. Ambition and hunger propelled him, and he hasn’t looked back since.
Hoping to emulate the successes of Pulisic, McKennie embraced the trip abroad. Upon arriving at the Gelsenkirchen club, he was brought under the tutelage of renown youth coach Norbert Elgert, who developed the likes of Leon Goretzka and Mesut Özil. This man, McKennie says, served as a coach and role model, guiding the American to success with the U-19 squad. Operating as a holding midfielder, he proved himself worthy of a senior team promotion by May 2017.
Bundesliga play presented itself as another challenge for McKennie, and he was certainly up to the task. Newly appointed coach Domenico Tedesco has brought a fresh approach to Schalke’s style, and the American has filled in perfectly. His value has been discerned in just a few games, evident by the lengthy contract he penned with the Royal Blues until 2022.
It’s not often that American youth players witness such early success abroad, and McKennie is a refreshing diamond in the rough. Resisting the pull of MLS, he bravely sought a big opportunity across the waters, and it appears to be paying off. As Michael Bradley hits his 30’s, Jermaine Jones simply deteriorates, and other options looking dire, Weston McKennie and Wil Trapp offer an impressive midfield duo for the future.
The sheer enthusiasm the American exhibits for the blue of Schalke radiates enduring hope. The supporters of the Gelsenkirchen club have dealt with numerous, severe losses in the recent years, with Joel Matip, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, and Sead Kolasinac all leaving the club for free. Young star Leon Goretzka is following that path, but McKennie seems determined to reverse course. His fan favorite status and dedication to the club are indicative of a new wave of Schalke youngsters, who are prepared to stave off European giants to propel the club back up the Bundesliga ladder.
In a city that prides itself on hard work, McKennie’s playing style receives all the more appreciation. His tireless midfield work ethic sees him cover every blade of grass during the match, chasing down attackers and initiating the counterattack. He leads the team from the center of the park, and he sure does lead them well.
During his multiple appearances this campaign, the American has drawn comparisons to his teammate Leon Goretzka. Obviously, the latter is far more developed, but McKennie has some catch-up to do, and with a little bit of refinement, he could become a carbon-copy of the future Bayern player.
A jack-of-all-trades player, McKennie holds value in his adaptability. Equally capable of playing the 6, 8, or 10 role, he exhibits the traits necessary to play in different roles, making him one of the most well-rounded youngsters around. He possesses the athleticism and stamina of an elite No. 8, combining it with the technical ability and size of a No. 6. Playing him at the No. 10 would be particularly ambitious, simply because he hasn’t proven his proficiency in the final third, but he certainly holds the IQ and vision to make an impact at said role. In fact, the combination of McKennie’s versatility and Tedesco’s ingenuity saw him play in centerback during a friendly in January against Genk. A testament to his well-roundedness, the American might have a future as a defender, but he’s probably better off in the middle of the park.
His composure in a deep pivot defies American standard, and his duality in attack and defense could allay the U.S. National Team’s problem of transitioning. As a deeper midfielder, McKennie exhibits excellent strength and awareness, knowing how to position his body to recover the ball, and knowing where to be before the ball gets there. He also matches the American archetype in his drive, powering up and down the pitch for the entire match, never giving up on the ball. He can pick up the ball and run at the defense, an important asset that the U.S. desperately needs.
In the end, most of the States’ midfield problems could be solved by a 19-year-old. Whether that is indicative of McKennie’s innate ability or the ineptitude of his other countrymen is yet to be seen. Schalke have a treasure on their hands, and the American could prove crucial to their path back to the Champions League. Elsewhere, McKennie serves as a role model for other American youth players, a testament to the benefits of rejecting your comfort zone and taking a plunge into uncharted waters.
In a time where American fans heads’ hang lowest, we have a savior. While Christian Pulisic wears the cape proudly on his back, Weston McKennie will be operating in darker settings, ready to emerge when the time is right. His eyes are set far in the distance, looking at Qatar on the horizon, but for the moment he is prepared to serve the Royal Blues dutifully.
Writer: Brandon Duran/@alcxntara6
Photo: Sports Illustrated