RISING: Weston McKennieHaving learned the game while his father was stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Weston McKennie fortuitously met U.S. internationals Landon Donovan and Carlos Bocanegra during the MNT’s visit in 2006. Spurred to follow in their footsteps, McKennie has risen to become a breakout star for Bundesliga side FC Schalke and emerging prospect in the midfield for the U.S. Men’s National Team.
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."
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.