Weston McKennie on breakout 2017 from Schalke U19s to U.S. debut
It has been some year for Weston McKennie. In just a couple of months, the United States youngster has catapulted himself from Schalke's under-19 team to the USMNT. One thing, though, has not changed: his attitude.
"I'm still young. I have a lot of time to fix things. It's just how it is," said the 19-year-old when he sat down with ESPN FC in late November. Schalke had just sealed a remarkable turnaround in the prestigious Revierderby at Borussia Dortmund. Going into half-time with a 4-0 deficit, the Royal Blues bounced back to draw 4-4 and it might well have only been the referee's final whistle that stopped them from beating Christian Pulisic's BVB.
But while the match ended in a draw, McKennie, who was booked early on in the match, was substituted after only 34 minutes with his team trailing by four goals. Instead of dropping down the pecking order, the midfielder kept his place on the team and started the next two matches.
"You have to learn from the mistakes and move on," said McKennie, making it clear that he is only at the start of his career, focused on learning from teammates like Leon Goretzka, Max Meyer and Nabil Bentaleb, who have all played alongside him at the Veltins Arena under the club's young head coach, Domenico Tedesco.
Having debuted in the Bundesliga on the final day of the 2016-17 season, McKennie had been unsure of his place when Schalke again changed coaches during the summer. With Markus Weinzierl leaving, his promotion to the senior squad had been under scrutiny. But as 31-year-old Tedesco opened the race for limited squad places, the Texas-born midfielder fought for his career at the club. And while fellow American Haji Wright joined second-tier club Sandhausen on loan from Schalke, McKennie stayed and in August, he won his first competitive start in a cup match at Dynamo Berlin.
A few weeks later, he made his first start in the 3-0 defeat to Bayern Munich. But he had reached one of his goals, that of becoming a Bundesliga player at Schalke.
McKennie explained why it matters to play for a team like Schalke. "They have one of the biggest fan bases around the world. It's amazing to see, walk out in the stadium. You look around and you think 'wow, there are so many fans here. Where are they coming from?'
"Some people have travelled three, four, five hours just to come watch a game. On social media, you have videos from people in St. Louis supporting us, or in Amsterdam. It's crazy. The tradition, the background and the players they have developed. It's just a big club to play for, I think."
That day after his first start in Berlin, long after the match had finished, he could be seen wandering alone across the field, soaking up the atmosphere at the Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Sportpark in Berlin. This is where it started, where his season and his senior career took off with the trust of Tedesco, a young coach building a new team in Gelsenkirchen. This season, he has appeared in 13 of a possible 17 games, making nine starts.
"The thing I like about [Tedesco] is that he's straightforward. He told us young players: 'We're gonna go to preseason and you guys have an equal chance. You guys might not be ready, but if you are: Great, you can stay,'" said McKennie. "In preseason in Austria, he said that whoever runs the most will play. And our system requires a lot of running. Of course, it takes more than just running, and he knows that."
After missing out on qualifying for European competition last term, Schalke have so far profited from the guidance of Tedesco, who has brought a clear philosophy to the club. Having parted ways with former captain Benedikt Howedes in the summer and largely playing in a hard-running, high-pressing 3-5-2 formation, the Royal Blues currently sit third in Bundesliga; with 17 goals conceded, they also boast one of the league's meanest defences.
Schalke put early pressure on their opponents. Time and time again, you can see McKennie or one of his teammates breaking out of the formation, running at the opponent in control of the ball, closing passing lines and then running back. It is a tireless strategy but one that is tailor-made for the young American who feels comfortable alongside the likes of Goretzka or Meyer, who was moved to a role in holding midfield by Tedesco.
"That position requires a lot of running. Stepping out, pressure, come back. It's something that we have learned from Tedesco. You can only teach yourself the will, the heart to do it," said McKennie. "But the tactics behind it? We learned that from him. Stepping out, Vorwartsverteidigen. He's a real smart coach."
Tedesco has seen McKennie's raw talent and his eagerness to improve his game as the youngster learns from those competing with him. This season Schalke function as a team and have established a mentality to bounce back not only against Dortmund, but also in matches against Werder Bremen and Borussia Monchengladbach.
"Football is a team sport, a team effort," said McKennie, highlighting it does not mean that being a team means waiving all competition in training.
"We have days where we rough it out in practice. It's normal. That's what competition is," he said of fighting for a place in the starting XI with Meyer, Amit Harit, Goretzka and Bentaleb. "That's what I live for. I love competition. And it's nothing I shy away from.
"Max [Meyer], Leon [Goretzka], Nabil [Bentaleb]... they're not arrogant, cocky players who see me as a threat. They help me. They tell me when I am having a good practice and when I am not having one. If they see I am little slow in the warm-up or I play a couple of passes off, they tell me that it's not U-19 level anymore. 'It's the pros,' they tell me."
Having only left the U-19 level this summer, McKennie won his first senior cap for the United States against Portugal in November. Instead of warming up for the 2018 World Cup, the U.S. instead began their preparations for what's next after failing to qualify. Next summer could have seen McKennie pushing for a spot on the plan to Russia; it would also have seen his friend Pulisic (they spent Thanksgiving together) likely bringing his talent to the sport's biggest international stage.
"I've seen what [Pulisic] has sacrificed," said McKennie. "He had been putting the team on his back through qualifying. He was involved in 12 of the 17 goals that [the U.S.] scored."
But like being substituted against Borussia Dortmund, missing out on the World Cup in McKennie's world also offers a chance. "You live and you learn. The one thing you can do is move on, and try and make changes to better U.S. soccer.
"It's the whole country to blame for, not just those 11 players that were on the field. The system, U.S. soccer. There's a lot of places where you can put the blame but in reality, it happened and the only thing we can do now is focus on moving forward." Against Portugal, as the U.S. closed out 2017 and started looking ahead to the 2019 CONCACAF Gold Cup and the qualifiers for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, McKennie put his name on the scoresheet after just 20 minutes.
What's next for McKennie? "I was really happy," he said. "You could tell by me screaming after I had scored that goal."
"When I went there, I understood that as an opportunity to prove myself, to show that I belong there and I can play at that level. I think going there, scoring the goal and having a good game against Portugal helped me out with that. Hopefully, I get called in to the U.S. next camps, so we'll see."
"My plan is to keep playing here and develop, get better and better. Keep getting more starts hopefully and become a part of the core group, become a regular starter. Hard work determines what comes next. A little bit of talent, obviously, here and there.
"I can't really see the future, but I can control what I can do in the present. We'll see what happens."
With Schalke sitting close to the top of a pack of nine teams chasing the three vacant Champions League spots, the midfielder, who signed a contract extension in the summer keeping him at the club until 2022, hopes to display his skills at the highest level sooner rather than later.
"Do I believe that we can qualify for Champions League? Yeah, I believe we can. But it's a little early to say because the first half of the season and the second half are totally different from each other."
Stephan Uersfeld is the Germany correspondent for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @uersfeld.