04 November 2020 14:34
The 22-year-old Juventus midfielder is spearheading a new wave of American talent while emerging as one of the sport's strongest voices in the campaign against social injustice All his teammates were exhausted, sat around the edge of the field, stretching and sweating after a hard practice session in the height of summer, but Weston McKennie still had energy to burn. The United States men's national soccer team were using the Cleveland Browns' training facility during the 2019 Gold Cup, and the young midfielder decided to entertain his colleagues – and anyone else in eyeshot – by turning his hand to the sport of their NFL hosts. "You're looking at him and thinking, 'This guy could easily have been an NFL athlete,'" says USMNT manager Gregg Berhalter, recalling the scene. In the eyes of his coaches and teammates, those minutes of post-practice exertion exemplified McKennie – the athletic talent, the boundless energy, the natural inclination to entertain and the work ethic that combined to earn a dream move to Juventus, where he plays on loan from Schalke, at the age of 22. It was by a quirk of fate that the athletic gifts McKennie possesses came to be applied to football.
He was taken to the local club, FC Phönix Otterbach, by his mother, Tina, who was looking for another activity to supplement the organised tag American football her active infant played on the base. He scored eight goals in his first game and was quickly moved up to play alongside the club's eight-year-olds. Knowing little about the sport he found himself excelling in, it wasn't until the USMNT came to town, for a friendly against Poland in Kaiserslautern in 2006, that the 7-year-old McKennie's eyes were opened to the world of possibilities football presented him. After three years in Germany, McKennie and his family returned to the States, his soccer obsession surviving the journey back across the Atlantic. He soon joined FC Dallas, blossoming into one of the country's finest box-to-box midfielders, earning regular US youth call-ups and helping the MLS club win the Soccer Development Academy national championship in 2015. At under-19 level, coach Brad Friedel was so impressed that he pushed the then-18-year-old Dallas standout on to the under-20s. "My first impression was he's a player that has this endless energy in the middle of the field," says Tab Ramos, the US under-20s coach at the time. As part of their efforts to entice McKennie, Schalke had under-19s manager Norbert Elgert – a respected veteran coach who has helped develop the likes of Mesut Ozil, Manuel Neuer and Leroy Sane – to outline the club's plans for the American. "This is gonna be you one day," Tina McKennie said to her son as they stood at centre-field of the vast stadium. "He's the guy who's always dancing in the locker room before training or games but has the ability to switch it off when it's time to focus," adds Nick Taitigue, a 21-year-old American midfielder who roomed with McKennie before his move to Juventus. Within nine months of his arrival in Germany, he was promoted to Schalke's first-team squad, making his debut in May 2017 before establishing himself as a regular senior starter the following season. In November that year, he fulfilled a dream 12 years in the making, following in the footsteps of Landon Donovan and the other USMNT players he'd met as a star-struck 7-year-old with a full international debut in a friendly against Portugal. And even at international level, the work rate that had endeared him to Schalke fans and coaches alike stood out. Schalke were Bundesliga runners-up in 2017-18, but player sales and mismanagement meant they struggled for much of McKennie's time in the first team. At international level, his energy, commitment and the gravity of his personality have made him a respected figurehead for this emerging generation of gifted young US players. Similar to Manchester United star Marcus Rashford's work to battle food poverty in the UK, McKennie and international teammates Tyler Adams and Christian Pulisic came together to support Feeding America, the largest hunger-relief organization in the States. Having stamped his mark on the field where, four years earlier, he'd stood in wonder alongside his family as he weighed up his move to Germany, a departure from Schalke was expected in the summer of 2020. "Wes was fascinated by the idea to take the next step in his development and career by practicing with football stars like Cristiano Ronaldo, Gianluigi Buffon, Paulo Dybala and so on," says Elgert. "When a coach like [Andrea] Pirlo really wants you and thinks you can make an impact in his team, it's very difficult to say no to that," adds Berhalter, who likens McKennie stylistically to Liverpool's Georginio Wijnaldum and thus expected him to join a Premier League side. Even given his natural athletic talent and early promise with a ball at his feet, McKennie, at age 22 and playing for one of football's greatest clubs, has over-achieved. "He's one of those players you don't see as having a weakness, because every day he comes to work and he comes to work hard," says Ramos.