Weston McKennie on U-20s: "I Think We Can Win It"
March 22, 2017
EARLIER THIS MONTH the United States U-20 national team qualified for the World Cup and brought home its first-ever CONCACAF title in the process. Despite the team's strong showing in Costa Rica, head coach Tab Ramos hinted at a few additions to the squad for this summer's big dance in South Korea. One of the names on his short list: Weston McKennie.
Adding McKennie to the U-20 team makes sense. McKennie, 18, has risen quickly through the U.S. youth national teams and was a standout performer last spring for the U-19 team that defeated Georgia, Ukraine, and Russia en route to winning the Slovakia Cup. McKennie was named the player of the tournament.
A longtime veteran of the FC Dallas youth system, McKennie’s opted to forego a homegrown contract with Dallas and instead signed a multiyear deal with Schalke of the German Bundesliga. The move has paid off, as McKennie often wears the captain's armband for Schalke's U-19 team, and Ramos called him up to the U-20 team in November.
“This year has been a great year in continuing my development,” McKennie told American Soccer Now from Germany. “I've learned so many things—too many to single out. I've really learned how important the little things are both on and off the field. It's not a big lifestyle change but it is at certain points. Over here it is so demanding you don't get too much time to disconnect from what it is. You really have to focus and prepare for the next training because each training is very demanding and hard. You really have to give it your all if you want to make to the next level.
"I really think I’ve picked up on what the club wants from me, what they expect over here, what they believe I can do. So I really think I will really be able to make an impression whenever I get the chance to go up [to the first team]. And whenever I do get that chance, I look forward to staying up.”
Schalke began scouting McKennie while he was playing for the U.S. U-19s and direct contact started last summer during the USSDA academy playoffs. That process also sped up FC Dallas’ attempts to sign its top prospect.
McKennie struggled to decide between three options: Schalke, FC Dallas, and a scholarship at the University of Virginia. McKennie was very connected to Dallas—the club he had been with since age nine. His family also values education and the University of Virginia option received strong consideration.
But Schalke is one of Germany’s bigger teams and its U-19 coach, Norbert Elgert, is one of Europe’s most renowned youth coaches. In the end, Schalke presented a multiyear offer that was hard for any club to match.
Additionally, McKennie felt very comfortable in Germany. From ages six through nine, he lived in the country while his father served in the U.S. military and was based near Kaiserslatuern. While living there, McKennie became fluent in German and began playing soccer for a local village team. From that experience, he always considered Germany a “home away from home.”
“It was a very hard decision to make,” McKennie said. “I grew up at FC Dallas and we lived there for nine years. But living in Germany, I always felt that my development was here. Being able to come back here was a huge opportunity for me.
"It was tough but I still felt like I made the right decision.”
McKennie's agent is Cory Gibbs, a former standout with the United States national team and a player who also had a career in Europe and MLS—including a stint with Dallas. While reviewing the options with McKennie and his family, Gibbs fully understood all of the factors at play.
“When you’re offered a contract from Schalke, which is one of the top 12 richest clubs in the world, and they produce so many stars and have Europe’s top renowned youth coach, it’s hard to say no at that point at this point,” Gibbs said. “Clubs like Schalke are specific. They needed a player of his age and of his position. They look at that position for the first team. So it’s not like they brought him over because he fit in well with their U-19s. There is a projected plan for him throughout his development to be part of the first team. Hopefully that’s soon.”
“It hurts for FC Dallas,” Gibbs continued. “I can understand their pain when you lose one your top youth prospects. But these things happen. He’s given so much to that club, let’s not forget. He’s brought them a lot of success. They’ve also given him a lot by developing him to the point of where he was before he got here. It works both ways and it’s also a great recruiting tool for FC Dallas.
"When they’re looking to bring young kids in, they can say Weston is a role model in the bigger picture of how you can succeed.”
Despite a midseason injury, McKennie appears to be on a good path. Off the field, he lives in a housing complex along with many of the other players on the U-19 team. There the club is able to monitor their nutrition, social adjustment, and other aspects of their lives. He lives with fellow American Nick Taitague and Haji Wright stayed there for a time too, later opting to move out over the winter.
On the field, McKennie has been a mainstay with Schalke's U-19s and he lists breaking into the first team as a top goal for 2017. A box-to-box midfielder, he has brought energy and skill to the team. His leadership, however, is a noticeable attribute.
He claims he was a "little" surprised when he was first asked to wear the captain's armband.
“That’s really because in the beginning of the year the coach came to me and said, 'So I hear you’re a leader?’ McKennie said. "I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ And he said ‘OK.’ He gave me a heads up that maybe he sees me as a leader too. I was a little bit nervous at first but it is a challenge I like to take on and I am willing to accept.
"It’s a real honor every time.”
Turning ahead to May when the United States will take part in the U-20 World Cup, there's a strong likelihood that McKennie will find himself in the starting lineup for the critical opener against Ecuador. As a player who was not seen as a top American prospect at the U-17 level, McKennie is eager to be part of a promising U-20 team.
During World Cup qualifying, McKennie supported the team and had hoped to be part of it until Schalke denied his release. But after seeing how the Americans performed in November during his one camp with the U-20s, and then watching the team's success in qualifying, he is very optimistic about South Korea.
“I followed them in qualifying and read every article I could get my hands on,” McKennie said. “I would watch them over the Internet. It was a very exciting run to watch and very pleasing as well. Tab Ramos tried to get me released for it and we fought very hard, but it didn’t synch with Schalke’s schedule.
"The potential for the team at the World Cup after the qualifiers—I have full confidence and full belief in this team. I think we can win it. I think we have a good potential and a good team.”