Schalke's Weston McKennie dreaming of following Christian Pulisic's path
GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany -- It has been a little more than 12 months since Christian Pulisic announced himself in the Bundesliga as a 17-year-old. The American had entered Borussia Dortmund's youth system just over a year before making his professional debut, and in a matter of months, he turned himself into the United States' bright young thing.
Yet the Dortmund winger is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the wealth of American youngsters arriving into German football, prepared to work hard to fulfill their dreams of playing the game at the top level. Only a few miles to Dortmund's west, Schalke have signed three U.S. academy players -- attacker Haji Wright, midfielder Weston McKennie and winger Nic Taitague -- in recent years and months. Over in Wolfsburg, 19-year-old Orrin McKinze Gaines hopes to break through from the academy one day.
At this point, it seems only a matter of time before the next American youngster follows in Pulisic's footsteps.
"We all look up to him and say, 'It's possible,'" 18-year-old McKennie tells ESPN FC. "We see him do it and say, 'Why can't we do it either?'"
The midfielder joined Schalke last summer, when the Bundesliga club beat MLS side FC Dallas to his signature.
"That one hurt," MLS commissioner Don Garber told SI after losing the player to a European competitor. "We had a lot of forces that we were working against on signing that player. That's the reality of how difficult it is with a player pool at the youth level that continues to attract the attention of very, very aggressive and well-funded international teams."
But there was nothing MLS or Dallas could do. McKennie wanted to return to Germany, the place he called his home between the ages of 6 and 9, when his dad was in the military in Kaiserslautern. He did not follow the Bundesliga after returning to Texas, preferring to go out and play the sport for himself, but he still had the dream of playing in Europe.
"Playing soccer in Europe is like coming to America to play basketball," McKennie says, with his eyes lighting up as he talks about the chance to join Schalke. He soon realised the club had more to offer than just its stature.
"I was in the middle of an under-20 national team camp, and my agent called and said, 'Hey, you need to take a look at Schalke. They want to put a face to the name.' I came over, and they showed me around the Internat [the residential home for young players], the stadium," he recalls. "I talked to coach Norbert Elgert over the phone, since he was on holidays. I kinda fell in love with the place."
Gelsenkirchen is not Texas. It's a city in Germany's Ruhr area, hit hard by the closing of mines. The unemployment rate is more than 12 percent, and Schalke offer fans a perspective in life, if only for a few hours a week.
"It's pretty amazing to see how committed they are down here," McKennie says. "You gotta love soccer in this area because it is soccer."
He fell in love with the place and stayed to become part of the club's famous Knappenschmiede, the academy that developed four 2014 World Cup winners -- Manuel Neuer, Mesut Ozil, Julian Draxler and Benedikt Howedes -- and has since sent Leroy Sane to Manchester City and Joel Matip to Liverpool. Midfielder Max Meyer and wing-back Sead Kolasinac could be the next to leave their Gelsenkirchen home for the Premier League. They would make way for young talent developed by Elgert, a coaching icon in Germany for his work in the academy.
"I heard about Norbert Elgert's history of developing players for the first team," McKennie says. "All those names you see on TV these days. I believed it was a better opportunity to get to my goals to become a professional player."
He therefore left Texas to begin his adventures abroad but acknowledges that it was "rough at first."
"I had friends in Kaiserslautern, three hours away. Haji, thank God he's here. Made it a little bit easier for me."
Pulisic was also there, and in spite of the fierce rivalry between Dortmund and Schalke -- culminating in the prestigious Revierderbies every season -- they remain in touch.
"He's right up the road," McKennie says. "He was one of my first friends on the national team when I was 14 years old."
The midfielder, drawn back into a more holding position at Schalke, has settled well. An injury denied him the chance to take part in the first team's winter training camp, and not wanting to fall behind in his last year as a youth player, he missed the CONCACAF U20 Championship triumph earlier this month. For Schalke U19s, McKennie is part of a group of five players sharing the captain's armband. Elgert singled him out as a leader, and he did not shy from the responsibility.
Having gone through the U.S. system, he relishes his new challenge at Schalke.
"Training is routine in America," he says. "Every Monday was the same as every Monday, and so on. Over here, you never know what you're going to get. In America, they picked out certain players they really wanted to work with and sometimes formed their training around them. Over here, it's more about the team progress and how we can improve the team and get players to the next level. It's not so much about winning championships."
With time running out on his youth career, McKennie is prepared to make the next step.
"When you go into the Veltins Arena, you really want to walk out down by the players," he says. "You look around and see thousands and thousands of people. To play for the fans, to play for the club, it would be a real dream come true."
With football becoming the top sport in the world in recent years and European clubs seeking to build their brands in the United States and China, there is always the suspicion that certain youngsters are signed as much for their marketing value as their playing ability.
Schalke marketing executive Alexander Jobst says this is not the case: "We've only signed them from a sporting perspective, but indeed, it would help our internationalisation efforts in the United States if they were to play successfully for us for longer period. But that wasn't the main aspect."
He also praises the new wave in American soccer.
"Football is becoming more global, and U.S. Soccer has done a lot of things right in the past few years," he says. "They no longer bank only on veteran stars but have focused on their youth by changing the structures. In the long run, it'll be important that the USMNT is successful."
The U.S. national side is still a long way away for McKennie, but his hunger could see him involved in this summer's U20 World Cup before he leaves the youth system and has to fight for his place among the senior pros. Given their track record, Schalke does not look like the worst place for him to start.
Stephan Uersfeld is the Germany correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @uersfeld.