If you track Weston McKennie over the course of a match, it is difficult to imagine him leaving anything within his control up to fate.
McKennie stamps his imprint on every game with his commitment and his energy. The blossoming midfielder covers acres of ground in his natural central midfield role and provides the combination of application and precision coaches crave in that department.
Those traits -- combined with McKennie’s ability and willingness to use them at the highest levels for German side Schalke 04 and the U.S. Men’s National Team -- clash with his origin story.
His path to the Bundesliga required all sorts of diligence and effort from an early age, but it started during his youth with a stark decision encountered by military families every day: Where are we headed next?
“We were stationed in Fort Lee, Virginia,” Weston’s father, John, recalled to ussoccer.com. “It was just coming up on time for me to make a PCS -- permanent change of station -- and I had an option to go to Alaska or go with Germany. I talked to the family about it and it's like, ‘Ah, we don't want to go to Alaska, it’s too cold there.’ So we decided to go to Germany, and take advantage of the traveling and seeing things and some of those things when we ended up there.”
The next stop carried them to Ramstein Air Base, located approximately 10 miles outside of Kaiserslautern, and the small town of Otterbach. Other destinations offered other attractions. Perhaps Weston McKennie might have picked up snowshoeing in Alaska or surfing with a spell in San Diego. In Germany, the choices involved a round ball and a patch of grass. The fateful choice shaped his future and his interests.
“We wanted all of our kids to be exposed to the culture, how they live, and try to pick up the language,” Weston’s mother, Tina, explained. “And Weston went over to the gym across the street with his brother John and his friend Toby and started playing soccer. He was playing against older guys. He wasn't afraid or anything like that. And then the man who became his coach came over and asked us if he could play on this team.”
(Weston's first player registration card)
For some reason, the game spoke to Weston and the traits ingrained within him. The circumstances around him more or less foisted it on him. His personality -- the same gritty behavior he shows week-in, week-out now for a club predicated upon that sort of earnest work -- forged his appreciation for it.
“I wanted to stay out of trouble,” McKennie said. “My parents didn't want me to be a troubled kid, so they gave me something to do. I went across the street with my brother to play soccer sometimes. And, and that's when I met my first coach. I didn't know he was going to be my coach at first, but he invited me to go play and I went up to the local village team and try out in some school clothes. I mean, that's where it all started.”
The coach, David Müller, remembers that moment well. He spotted McKennie and his brother that day and welcomed them with open arms. It proved the start of a relationship that continues to this day.
“I remember we were in there playing, a bunch of 16 to 20 year olds,” Müller said. “There were these two Americans, one of them 14 years old, one of them five years old. He never saw the ball, but if he had the ball, you could see he was pretty good. That was Weston. I went to his brother and said, ‘Why don’t you bring him out to the local team I just took over? It’s exactly his age group.’”
On his first day with the team in Otterbach, Weston McKennie showed up in khaki shorts. Tina McKennie thanked Müller for bringing him into the team and explained how it would keep him active until flag football season started on the base. It did not look or feel like the start of something special until the new recruit took the field and started to play.
“In the first game we had, he scored eight goals,” Müller said. “We moved him up two age groups and he played with the 1996 age group in Germany. As long as he was there, we didn’t lose a game. I think the mentality he has now comes a lot from this time because I didn’t like excuses."
"I would say, ‘Weston, take responsibility, you are the best player on the team, there is no need to let others do your work.' Weston was the kind of kid who could do that. He was good enough to score or decide a game in our favor.” - David Müller
In those formative years, McKennie reveled in the opportunities afforded to him. His location even presented him with the chance to meet U.S. Men’s National Team stalwarts Carlos Bocanegra and Landon Donovan as the team swung through Kaiserslautern for a friendly against Poland in 2006, when he was just seven years old. Donovan signed McKennie’s cleats and sparked the possibilities in McKennie’s mind.
“It definitely was a life changing experience for me because before I moved to Germany, I really didn't know soccer was a sport,” McKennie said. “In football, there's no national team or anything, so I didn't know there was a national team where you can play for your country and the best kids in the country play together. And so when I met those guys and I said, wow, I can aspire to be something even bigger than just playing for a club or just from my little village at the time. I didn't really know how you've gone about that or how you get to that moment, but I knew I kind of want to get myself there at some point.”
Even as McKennie and his family moved to Texas and he grew into his teenage years there, those dreams lingered. As a promising athlete with an older brother fully invested in football, McKennie dabbled in two sports and stood his ground when faced with the age-old choice.
“He was back home in Texas, and of course his older brother played football,” Weston’s father, John, said. “He wondered, ‘do I want to play football too?’ He became a dual sport kid and, at the time, he was playing both sports he loved. He excelled in both, but again there was a time he had to choose. Once he became part of the FC Dallas Academy, he was like, ‘You gotta choose, you can't play both sports.’”
The vital decision to stick with soccer eventually placed McKennie on a circuitous path back to Germany. He joined U.S. Soccer’s Under-17 Residency Program in Bradenton, Fla, in 2013, but he featured in the first team sparingly. Despite the international adversity, McKennie continued to show his promise with the FC Dallas Academy. He notably scored the game-winning goal to spur FCD to a 4-0 win against New York Red Bulls in the 2015-16 U.S. Soccer Development Academy Championship match.
Even with those accomplishments in tow, he still missed out on a chance to play in the FIFA U-17 World Cup in 2015 when he wasn’t selected to the final roster. McKennie says now the setback only prodded him forward. His subsequent displays with the U.S. Under-19s at the Slovakia Cup in 2016 eventually presented him with a trio of opportunities: a college scholarship with the University of Virginia, a Homegrown contract with FC Dallas or a pro contract with Schalke.
“Between all of us, the family as a whole unit, there were some heated discussions,” John McKennie said.
Weston pushed for Schalke and eventually won out in the end when he signed a contract on his 18th birthday. The decision left him -- a military kid who finally felt comfortable and connected in Texas with his FCD teammates after moving around for much of his childhood – in the difficult position of parting during his team’s Academy playoffs just days before leaving for Germany.
“I tried to get my first words out and I started crying,” McKennie said. “It was really emotional because I felt like I was abandoning them in that time. And I felt wrong for it. But we know that true teammates and true family and true brotherhood existed on that team because they were all happy for me. They were all like, ‘it's an opportunity you can't pass up. It's once in a lifetime.’ And they were right.”
McKennie returned to Germany with the proper mentality to grasp that chance with both hands. He boasted the necessary ability to make his mark, but he distinguished himself with his graft and his toughness. In the course of his first year with Schalke in 2016, he moved from the Under-19 team to a substitute’s role with the first team by the final match of the season. The debut served as a testament to the qualities he conveyed during that short stretch.
“I think my hard work is in my play,” McKennie said. “My coach here calls me a little tank. I'm not going to say I’m the best technical player, but if you need someone to go in and rough up people, you need someone to go in and win balls for you or just simply run, I think I'm your guy.”
This level of belief and conviction distinguishes McKennie from his peers and playing in the former mining town of Gelsenkirchen, endears him to the supporters of Die Knappen (The Miners). He is amiable off the field, but he is dedicated and forthright on it.
Those qualities serve him well as he tussles for playing time week after week. They also underscore why he possessed the tools to cope when he made with his first professional start against Bayern Munich in 2017 and impressed when he stood firm in the center of the park in subsequent matches against seasoned professionals.
“I know I'm gonna win this header,” McKennie said. “I know I'm goning get to that ball for that guy and I think that's kind of the impact that I have. Those are the attributes that I have in me, and that's something I saw also in [former U.S. international] Jermaine Jones whenever he was here at Schalke.”
While McKennie admires the qualities of the former U.S. midfielder, he is also insistent about creating his own way in a side headed for the UEFA Champions League next fall. When he scored 21 minutes into senior-team career last November against Portugal, he held the distinction as the third-youngest MNT player to tally in his debut, with Donovan just one of two players ahead of him on that list. McKennie has since moved to fourth after 18-year-old Josh Sargent tallied in a 3-0 win against Bolivia in May.
Even with those early accomplishments, he knows his career -- one poised to include a prominent role with the U.S. Men’s National Team as it builds toward the 2022 FIFA World Cup -- is only at its outset. He must continue to improve with each passing day to earn his place in Domenico Tedesco’s starting XI at Veltins Arena and stake his international claims with the MNT.
“What I respect about him is that he takes it in and he works on his craft on a daily basis,” former U.S. defender Cory Gibbs said. “It's not something that happens in an hour and a half in training. I think you have to give a solid six, seven, eight, nine hours a day. I think Weston, at his young age, does that."
It is exactly the sort of behavior poised to carry him through the next stage of his career and ensures he stays in the good graces inside Veltins-Arena.
“I'm a happy, joyful person and that's what people like here,” McKennie said. “They like my energy, like my vibe that I have. I take time for the fans and everything, but they also know I have a complete other side. That side goes into tackles. I'll bleed for the crest and it's something that they get. They'll bleed for the crest. They'll do anything for us. And that's something that I think they realized. I'll do anything for them. Throw my body in front of a shot. No problem. I'll take a tackle. So I think that's how it fits in for this area, for this club.”
Even within the same country, McKennie stands a long way from that first experience in Otterbach. It is even further from the decision taken to place McKennie on this road. His future no longer hinges on a location choice or a twist of fate. It is firmly in his own hands, ready for him to shape and mold through his ability and industry in the years ahead.
Touching tributes poured in on social media from all corners of the soccer community as news spread that Hall of Fame coach Sigi Schmid had passed away on Christmas Day 2018. And amid the sadness shared by so many who knew him, the messages also provided the rest of us a glimpse into the kind of man that Sigi was, and reminded everyone of the influence Sigi had on the American soccer landscape.
For newer fans of the game, Sigi will be remembered as one of the greatest of MLS coaches, leading the Columbus Crew, Seattle Sounders and LA Galaxy to multiple trophies each. Older fans may recall the soccer factory he created while coaching UCLA to numerous NCAA Championships in the 1980 and ‘90s, churning out future U.S. Soccer legends like Cobi Jones, Brad Friedel, Paul Caligiuri, Joe Max-Moore, Frankie Hejduk, Eddie Lewis and Chris Henderson, among others.
It’s also important to highlight the impact he had with two teams he coached for shorter time frames: the U.S. U-20 MNTs that participated in the 1999 and 2005 FIFA U-20 World Youth Championships, each time advancing to the knockout stage while facing the likes of Argentina, England, Germany, Spain and Italy.
Seven players from those U-20 teams would go on to represent the MNT at senior FIFA World Cups, while many others also had solid pro careers. And if not for Schmid, we may never have known some of those players. We caught up with a few from each team:
1999 FIFA U-20 World Cup Championship:
While at UCLA, Sigi also assisted the MNT at 1994 FIFA World Cup and coached the following year’s Pan-American Games. In 1997, he was also coaching the U-18 MNT when he went to scout a player who had just played in the U-17 FIFA World Youth Championship and was playing for his high school in Southern California. However, as Carlos Bocanegra tells it, there was a mistake on the published schedule and the team that Sigi went to see was not playing. Sigi stuck around anyway, and watched the promising football wide receiver, Bocanegra, play soccer for his Alta Loma High School.
“I think about that all the time,” the two-time World Cup veteran Bocanegra told ussoccer.com this week. “That was my break. That was my chance. He gave me the opportunity and I was able to take that opportunity. That’s how I was able to kick-start my soccer career – pure coincidence that he was watching my game that got mixed up and he saw me play.”
Schmid invited Bocanegra, a junior at the time, to a U-18 camp. The next year he continued his pursuit of the talented defender and recruited Bocanegra to join him at UCLA. Their bond strengthened when Schmid took over the U-20 MNT and made Bocanegra a key member of the USA’s 1999 FIFA World Youth Championship side in Nigeria.
That team also included fellow future senior World Cup players Tim Howard, Steve Cherundolo, Nick Rimando and Chris Albright, as well as long-time pros Danny Califf, Nick Garcia, Cory Gibbs, John Thorrington and Taylor Twellman, who became one of the most prolific American goalscorers in the pro ranks.
“That World Cup, playing with Sigi, had a massive impact on me and ultimately convinced me that I needed to go pro,” said Twellman, who at the time was also contemplating if his future would be in baseball, where he also excelled.
At the tournament, the USA defeated an England side that featured Ashley Cole and Peter Crouch, fell to Shinji Ono’s Japan, and defeated Cameroon in group play before falling by a score of 3-2 in the Round of 16 to eventual champions Spain that included Iker Casillas and Xavi.
In the lead up to that tournament, Sigi broke from the past and brought the team overseas for training, including to Morocco for two games and on a two-week fitness camp in Germany, where the team stayed at a bed-and-breakfast.
Bocanegra in action vs. Argentina in 2003, a few short years after graduating from Schmid's tutelage.
“He really tried to give us good experiences that he thought would help us later in our career,” said Bocanegra. “He always tried to set trips up around where we could watch games at a higher level and get experiences to challenge ourselves in different ways than was maybe common practice. He always wanted the best for the group and to give us the best experiences to try to better ourselves, not only on the field but in life and to become well-rounded in the game.”
As a reward for the hard work in Germany, Sigi brought the U20s to France to attend the 1998 World Cup match between the USA and Germany.
“Sigi had such a feel for the game of soccer, domestically and globally,” said Chris Albright. “He always communicated that we were putting on our nations colors and flag, representing the country. He drilled that in us that this was not to take it for granted, that it was not to be taken lightly.”
Like Bocanegra, Sigi introduced Albright to the National Team scene. Later he helped pick him up when things were not going well at D.C., trading for him in LA. At the suggestion of then MNT coach Bruce Arena, Sigi helped convert Albright from a forward into a defender, a move that later landed Chris on the 2006 World Cup team.
“He had an excellent ability to teach multiple positions; he could make me a better forward, wide midfielder, defender,” Albright said. “He could teach principles of different positions to help each player grow, and that teaching element in developing us at that time was unique.”
Twellman scored four goals in the tournament, good for third overall, thus becoming the first American to capture a scoring award (Bronze Boot) in a FIFA World Youth Championship.
Twellman accepts the Bronze Boot alongside then U.S. Soccer president Dr. Robert S. Contiguglia.
“When people talk about Sigi, they talk about his love of the game,” Twellman said, who a few months later would leave Maryland to sign with 1860 Munich in Germany. “But he was also a gentleman and was kind off the field. Every single one of us on that team, if we saw Sigi 3-4-5-10 years down the road…he always watched our games, even when he was not our coach. He was always willing to talk to us, showed interested in us, asked us about our lives.”
Now the Technical Director of MLS Cup champion Atlanta United, Bocanegra draws from those early experiences under Schmid.
“Even though we were young, he really tried to instill the professionalism in us,” Bocanegra said. “The detail, structure, organization – challenging us. He always made time to make people feel important. He never stopped, through college, through pros, was always available. He was pretty special.”
2005 Under-20 World Youth Championship
A week after that 1999 U-20 tournament came to an end for the USA, Sigi also began his pro career, taking the helm of his hometown LA Galaxy for the next five seasons.
He returned to coach the U-20 MNT in October 2014, having only a couple months to scout and prep players for January’s U-20 Concacaf Championship.
Two years earlier, Schmid’s Galaxy had eliminated Kansas City and veteran National Team player Peter Vermes from the MLS Cup Playoffs. After the game, Vermes recalled this week, Schmid approached him and told him he’d like to have him on his staff one day.
Fast-forward to fall 2014, a since-retired Vermes called Sigi and reminded him of that conversation. Schmid held true and invited Vermes to a three-week U-20 camp. After a week of evaluating, Schmid told Vermes he had earned one of the assistant coach positions.
“It was a great opportunity for me just to be around somebody like him with as much knowledge and experience that he had,” Vermes said, who enters the 2019 season as the longest tenured MLS coach, having taken the reigns of Sporting KC in 2009. “I already knew I wanted to coach for a long time, but what those experiences give you is like anything – when you first want to do something, you’re excited, you’re ambitious, you’re motivated, you’re all those things. But sometimes you lack the confidence. For me, Sigi gave me a direction that I felt comfortable with because I had gotten a chance to see a lot of different things that I wouldn’t have if I didn’t get that chance to be with him and spend all that time, and the preparation, and everything. It was a great experience.”
Schmid’s first friendly was in November in Ft. Lauderdale. Due to College Cup, some would-be regulars were not available, so Schmid called in four new players, including UCLA speedster Marvell Wynne, who had never been called to any YNT camp before.
“I think I should have been more in the moment with everything that happened,” Wynne admits. “When I got called in I remember thinking ‘these guys are way better than me.’ But Sigi kept calling me back. When he said I made the team, I was definitely shocked.”
For a mid-December camp Schmid called in 30 players, including UCLA walk-on midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who also had never been on any Youth National Team. Like Wynne, Feilhaber also made a formidable impression.
Wynne and Feilhaber were instrumental in helping the USA qualify for the
2005 FIFA U-20 World Youth Championship three weeks later.
Let’s back up for a second. Sigi’s sons also played college soccer in the LA area around that era. And, family man that he was, he would always attend their games, first Kurt’s at UCLA, and later Kyle’s at UC-Irvine.
“It’s what jump-started my entire career,” said newly retired 12-year pro Brad Evans. “The only reason I made that U-20 team is because Kyle Schmid transferred to UC Irvine. Without Kyle transferring there was absolutely no reason for Sigi to come watch UCI play.”
Schmid had spotted Evans that fall at UCI, but it wasn’t until after the U-20s had qualified for the World Cup that he called in the versatile player to his first National Team camp at any level.
Vermes explained how Sigi gave the preliminary roster to rest of the coaching staff and told them that they could each make a case for one player to either be replaced or be added.
“A lot of guys in that position would never consult the rest of staff,” Vermes said. “I thought that showed a lot of security and confidence on his part, to know what his decisions were but also want to know what his staff’s decisions were, and ultimately to make the best decision. There’s no doubt that that has helped me, and I would say that a lot of the players that were identified are players that are still playing or who had great careers because they were identified correctly.”
Wynne, Feilhaber and Evans were on the final 21-player roster, along with Jonathan Spector, Sacha Kljestan, Lee Nguyen, Freddy Adu, Chad Barret and Eddie Gaven, among others who also had solid pro careers.
The team shocked the world in the tournament opener, defeating Argentina 1-0 thanks to a Barrett goal assisted by Wynne. It would be the only loss and shutout suffered by the South Americans, who won their next six matches en route the lifting the championship trophy with future international stars Sergio Aguero, Lucas Biglia, Pablo Zabaleta, Fernando Gago and Golden Ball and Golden Boot winner, Lionel Messi.
Chad Barrett, who would go on to play professionally under Schmid in MLS, scored the game-winner vs. Argentina at the 2005 FIFA World Youth Championship.
The 20s then played Germany to a scoreless draw and defeated Egypt 1-0 before losing 3-1 to Italy in the Round of 16. The experience and exposure provided opportunities to a number of players.
Feilhaber would soon sign with Hamburg, and later would score one of the best goals of the USA’s rivalry against Mexico, helping the MNT win the 2007 Gold Cup. And despite interest from international clubs, Wynne and Evans returned to school. Wynne became the top pick in the next MLS SuperDraft and Evans was selected 15th overall the following year by Columbus’s new coach, Sigi Schmid.
“He means more than I can really describe,” Feilhaber said, who along with Spector also made the 2010 FIFA World Cup roster. “Getting that opportunity with the 20s led to everything else in my life. I have no idea if I would have become a pro. I know I would not have been as successful financially, [and] going to Europe that early helped me immensely as a player. I don’t know if I would have ever played on the National Team let alone in a World Cup. I’m really grateful for Sigi having that keen eye and for giving me that opportunity.”
Sigi not only gave Evans his international debut and professional debut but would also bring him to Seattle on their way to spending 10 pro seasons together.
“He was the pivot for me in my entire career,” Evans said. “You have youth coaches, parents, but if you want to talk about the person who I’m able to talk about 12 years later and say I played professionally because of them…yes, it comes from within, but you have to have someone who pushes you and really believed in you, and Sigi was the guy for me.”
Sigi’s memorial took place on Friday, Jan. 18 in Los Angeles.
In March 2017, after more than 300 MLS games and having also represented the USA in the 2008 Olympics and 2009 Confederations Cup, Wynne’s career came to an end after undergoing a heart procedure.
When he came to from the operation, one of the first voicemails he listened to was from Sigi Schmid.
“Sigi was the reason I became a pro,” Wynne said. “He got me on to the scene, kept me there, had confidence in me and he kept me going. In terms of coaching, it was more, ‘get the basics right and perfect them.’ He was the first one to hammer that home, and if you ever saw my career, it was basic.”
A reflective Wynne made a special trip to an LA Galaxy game last year to meet up with his former coach.
“We talked about my heart situation, and caught up about everything,” Wynne said. “And I told him, ‘you’re the reason I went pro.’ I was able to tell him face to face, but I hoped he knew.”
“Yea, the opportunity, experience and all those other things were great, but the best thing for me, to be honest, was that he and I became friends after that 2005 Youth Championship,” Vermes said. “We always, always talked and kept in touch and spent time with each other. We had a very good relationship.”
“I sense that he knew what he meant to me,” Feilhaber said. “The way that we spoke was not in a way that most coaches to ex-players do. We were friends - he understood how much of an influence he had on me. We had respect for each other, and I’m going to miss him a lot, but it’s so important to have these memories about him.”
“We talk about a coaching tree a lot, but Sigi’s got the player tree, the coaching tree, the soccer tree really,” Bocanegra said. “So many people spiraled off the opportunities he gave them. Through soccer he gave so many people their start. But the biggest part that everybody remembers is that he cared about each and every person. He wanted to get the best out of them, and did not give up. He would give second chances, third chances - if you were his guys, and you worked for him he was going to his damndest to get the best out of you and make you a better player or person in general.”
“When I think back on it, especially the last couple of weeks, we always talked about getting the ‘Sigi shirt-tug,’” Evans reminisced. “Once he got a hold of your shirt and put his arm around you, there was no getting away from it. But I remember him being very honest with me in everything. He never blew smoke up my tail or thought that I was better or worse than I was. He always believed in me. We really trusted each other when it came to soccer and had an unspoken relationship that just worked. It’s something that I’ll cherish and remember forever.”Read more