Weston McKennie: 10 things you might not know about Schalke's USA starlet
Having made an impressive start to life with Schalke, 19-year-old midfielder Weston McKennie is in line for his first senior appearance with the USA national team after being included in the squad to face European champions Portugal in a friendly on Tuesday.
But just how well do you know the Bundesliga’s latest rising star from across the pond? Sit back and let bundesliga.com take you on a trip down McKennie Lane…
1) He spent three years in Kaiserslautern as a child
Like a number of the Bundesliga’s American players (John Brooks, Julian Green, Fabian Johnson), McKennie has a childhood link with Germany. He spent three years in Kaiserslautern while his military father was stationed at the nearby Ramstein Air Base, and it was there that he fell in love with football. He joined his first club, FC Phönix Otterbach, as a six-year-old in 2004, and two years later he had his first brush with the USMNT, meeting legends Landon Donovan and Carlos Bocanegra before a friendly with Poland ahead of the 2006 FIFA World Cup.
The two American teenagers may find themselves on opposing sides of the Bundesliga’s biggest rivalry, but they have been thick as thieves since meeting as 13-year-olds playing for the US youth teams. In a recent interview with Sports Illustrated, McKennie launched into a passionate defence of Pulisic after the USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
“It sucks for Christian because he was involved in 12 out of 17 goals in qualifying. He’s 19 and having to put a team full of experienced players on his back and carry them, and it’s going to suck now because his name is forever associated with the team that didn’t qualify.”
3) He could have played American football
Growing up in Texas, it was almost inevitable that McKennie – regardless of his love of soccer – would develop a taste for American football. On several occasions he even tried to squeeze both sports into the same afternoon – knocking in a couple of quick goals for his soccer team before racing across town to take his place as a halfback, strapping on his pads in the car.
In the end, of course, soccer won out – but passions still flare in the McKennie household when it comes to American football. Weston and his older brother are avid supporters of the Washington Redskins, whereas their father is a die-hard Dallas Cowboys fan. Growing up with that rivalry has no doubt helped McKennie grasp the importance of the Revierderby between Schalke and BVB.
Watch: Introducing Weston McKennie…
4) He chose the harder path when joining Schalke in August 2016
Picture it. You are 17 years old, and FC Dallas – where you have been playing for seven years – are keen to sign you on an MLS Homegrown Player contract. Meanwhile the University of Virginia have offered you a full college scholarship, which your father and brother are encouraging you to take. Oh, and there’s a third option – Bundesliga side Schalke are keen to bring you over to Europe and see what you’re made of. What do you do?
“I made the right decision and I don’t regret it at all,” McKennie said, after trusting his instincts and making an ambitious return to Germany. “It wasn’t easy for me to let go of FC Dallas. But you’ve got to think, will I look back in 10 years and wish I could’ve gone over to Europe? I feel like if you can make it there, you can come back over here and play at a high level. But if as a kid you go into MLS and then try to come over to Europe, you might not be ready.”
5) His mother keeps him grounded
McKennie’s mother supported the move to Schalke, but he explained to kicker in October that she won’t stand for any diva-like behaviour from her son as he scales the Bundesliga heights.
“I know exactly who I am and where I come from,” said McKennie, who was born in Little Elm, Texas in 1998. “My mom would bust my chops if I suddenly started behaving like a star.”
6) He made his mark on the Schalke U19s
McKennie arrived at Schalke in August 2016 and joined the club’s U19s, where he had the opportunity to work with renowned youth coach Norbert Elgert – the man who developed 2014 World Cup winners Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Höwedes, Mesut Özil and Julian Draxler. Operating primarily as a holding midfielder, he enjoyed an excellent campaign, notching four goals and three assists and even captaining the side on five occasions. In the end Schalke lost their U19 Bundesliga semi-final on penalties to Bayern Munich, but McKennie had shown enough of his potential to earn promotion to the senior squad in May 2017.
7) He led the US U19s to Slovakia Cup success
McKennie had already demonstrated his leadership credentials several months before making the switch to Schalke. After an impressive 2015/16 campaign with Dallas – in which he netted 12 goals from central midfield – the future Royal Blue captained the US U19s to victory at the 2016 Slovakia Cup, and was named Player of the Tournament for good measure.
“If things go the way that I feel they will, I think we’ll be talking about him in the same way as we are about Christian Pulisic, and he could progress even further,” insisted former US goalkeeper Brad Friedel, who was in charge of the U19s at the time. “I don’t want to put a lot of pressure on him, but he is one outstanding talent.”
8) He is finally at home in the Ruhr Valley
At the beginning, it wasn’t easy for McKennie to return to a country where he didn’t really speak the language, but with the support of fellow American teammates Nick Taitague and Haji Wright he soon settled into life at Schalke. He lived with Taitague for several months, although the pair watched on helplessly in the small hours of 11 October as Trinidad and Tobago ended the USA’s – and McKennie’s – hopes of playing in Russia next summer. He has now moved into his own apartment in a quiet part of town, where he can “come and go without any disturbances”. More importantly, he appears to have seized upon the importance of football in the Ruhr region.
“To live here, you have to be a big soccer fan,” he acknowledged. “The community is based on hard work, and we’re known as Die Knappen – the coal miners. That’s what they used to do here. You can lose a game 5-0, but as long as you gave it your all and you worked as hard as you could, they will still applaud you at the end.”
9) He is a big Harry Potter fan
A self-confessed fan of J. K. Rowling’s boy wizard, McKennie is clearly hoping he can cast a spell on the Signal Iduna Park when Schalke travel to Dortmund for the season’s first Revierderby on Matchday 13 – especially if he comes up against his old pal Pulisic.
“When I got here, they were like, ‘Your little friend down the road is playing for the wrong team.’ It’s funny. I’m a big Harry Potter fan and Dortmund are like ‘They-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named’.”
10) He has the longest deal of any current Schalke player
Since making his debut against Ingolstadt at the end of last season, McKennie has made just 10 first-team appearances for Schalke, but that didn’t stop the club extending his contract until June 2022 at the back end of September. After losing Sead Kolasinac on a free transfer to Arsenal this summer and with Leon Goretzka‘s contract due to expire in June 2018, the Royal Blues are clearly determined not to let another hot prospect slip through their fingers.
“Weston will develop into a key member of our first team,” insisted sporting director Christian Heidel. “Thanks to his talent and his willingness to learn, he has made the rise from the U19s to the Bundesliga, and it’s been a success from the get-go. We’re very happy that Weston sees his long-term future at Schalke.”
Whether you’re a fan of Schalke, the USA or simply the Bundesliga in general, one thing’s for sure: you haven’t heard the last of Weston McKennie.