It’s been about 15 months since he arrived. That's given him time to find his footing, but it isn't nearly long enough to erase all the nerves and novelty from the job. Weston McKennie is 19-years-old and a frequent starter in midfield for Schalke 04, and on weekends he enjoys in three dimensions what most contemporaries need an Xbox to experience.
That still occurs to him now and then--especially when he’s surrounded by the Bundesliga’s biggest stars and the game is being played at the highest difficulty setting.
There was more to the September showdown with Bayern Munich, for example, than a 3-0 loss.
“It felt like one of those moments where it’s every kid's dream,” McKennie said of his 57-minute run-out against the five-time reigning champs. “You have people from America that take these birthday trips to see Bayern. I went to watch them play last year and sitting in the stands and seeing Douglas Costa, Vidal, Ribéry—they’re all right there. People would kill to be in this moment and then to play against them I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” McKennie exclaimed. “Of course, I was serious about it. I wanted to win the game. But it was an unreal moment for me because it was my first time. I was backing up in midfield at one point and someone bumped into me and it was James Rodríguez and I was like, ‘Damn, should I say sorry to him?’”
The match at Veltins-Arena ended and McKennie sought to balance the “little kid in me” with the “pissed off” professional.
“Sitting there, I was thinking, should I ask for one of their jerseys?”
“The next day I kind of regretted not asking, because half my team had jerseys from them,” McKennie told SI.com
The lesson: Life at the highest level is taxing and tough. Take what you can from a defeat.
“Yeah, we lost 3-0. Some unlucky stuff happened,” McKennie said. “But after the game I was like, ‘Wow, this is the type of level I can play at. This is where I believe I belong.’ Seeing how they play and where I’m at now and how I’m developing, I feel like playing in the Champions League is realistic. Playing in a World Cup is realistic. When I was younger, when I just started soccer and said, ‘I wish I could play against Bayern or against Madrid, these types of teams’ .... It was a real confidence booster.”
Make no mistake, the U.S. national team’s failure in Trinidad & Tobago, which ended a World Cup qualification streak nearly a decade older than McKennie, was a setback for everyone connected to American soccer. Dreams were dashed. Reputations were ruined. Opportunity and money were lost, and the very structure of the American game and its governance now face unprecedented scrutiny and upheaval. And it’s a loss for McKennie, who played no part in qualification yet still believed he had a shot at next summer’s tournament. He’s a Bundesliga midfielder after all, and he’s making in impression in a league that doesn’t discriminate against young talent. McKennie knows his name has been raised as a potential national team star and so far, age hasn’t been a barrier. He’s been good enough, so he’s been old enough.
“I thought I could’ve made it,” he said.
But he sat in Schalke teammate (and former roommate) Nick Taitague’s apartment early in the morning of October 11 and watched that dream slip away. McKennie said the bad bounces and body language imbued the qualifier with a sense of inevitable dread. It just never looked or felt right. There was shock, disappointment and empathy for countrymen suffering half a world away. And personally, the prospect of playing in a World Cup at 19, which only one American man has done in the modern era, was gone.
But every defeat offers something to hang on to—a memory, a lesson or an opportunity. And McKennie realized that right away.
“It was a lot of mixed emotions,” he said. “It’s a normal thing as an athlete, as a competitor—if someone’s ahead of you, it’s not being selfish or wrong. Every player thinks about it. Is this guy going to play good? You’re lying if you say you don’t think like that. Of course I’m disappointed. But I also think, ‘Does this open more doors for me on the national team?’”
It does, and they’re now open wide for prospects and players with potential—anyone with the skill and swagger to help rebuild a program that doesn’t have a meaningful game scheduled for nearly two years. McKennie might have been called up for Tuesday’s friendly against Portugal even if the USA had qualified. But now, as one of five national team campers without a senior cap and one of 12 aged 24 or younger, McKennie is more than a gamble or peripheral curiosity. The depth chart is destroyed and the deadline has been pushed back, meaning McKennie should have a genuine chance to establish himself. The page is turning swiftly and emphatically, and in his career so far he’s succeeded with each successive step. This one may not come wrapped in the prettiest packaging, but it’s one McKennie insists he’s ready for.
“It’s a big opportunity I’ve been looking forward to. It’s going to be exciting, to be able to wear that crest again,” said McKennie, who’s played twice for the U.S. U-20s. “It can be the birth of a new career.”
He needs only to look at the league he plays in—and at the contributions made by his good friend, fellow teenager and Revierderby rival Christian Pulisic— to see how quickly and comprehensively young players can contribute. A mirror also would do the trick.
McKennie rejected both FC Dallas and the University of Virginia when he chose Schalke in the summer of 2016. It wasn’t an easy decision. McKennie’s father and brother were pro scholarship. College can serve as a player’s insurance and as a foundation for the rest of his life. And Dallas was an obvious choice if he was ready to go pro.
McKennie starred for the club’s vaunted academy teams and could launch his career close to home. But interest from Germany and a club like Schalke, which has been criticized for failing to hold on to top players but not for failing to groom them, proved to be too alluring.
“It wasn’t easy for me to let go of FC Dallas and I was thinking about staying there because they’ve done so much for me. There’s a sense of loyalty there. But also, you’ve got to think, I understand there’s loyalty but 10 years down the road, will I look back and wish I could’ve gone over to Europe,” he asked. “I feel like Europe is more developed at the moment and if you can make it in Europe, you can come back over here and play at a high level.
“But vice versa, if as a kid you go into MLS and then try to come over to Europe, you might not be ready," he continued. "It’s really important to catch the development over here [in Europe] at a young age. Some come over and they’re not mentally strong enough for it and they end up having to go back. It doesn’t turn out how they thought.”
McKennie’s mother supported the move, his father eventually made peace with it and the midfielder hasn’t looked back. Confidence helps create clarity.
“I made the right decision and I don’t regret it at all,” he said.
“That one hurt,” MLS commissioner Don Garber said shortly after McKennie’s departure. “We had a lot of forces that we were working against on signing that player, and that’s the reality of how difficult it is with a player pool at the youth level that continues to attract the attention of very, very aggressive and well-funded international teams. That one hurt.”
Both sides knew what they were dealing with as McKennie’s combination of range, robust athleticism and technique is rare. And he’s as eager to take over a game with that imposing combination as he is willing to focus on one or two elements his team needs on a given day. McKennie helped Schalke’s U-19 side to the A-Junioren Bundesliga semifinals in May (they lost to Bayern on penalties) and then a few days later, he made his senior debut as a substitute in Ingolstadt. In September, the club offered him a new contract and a two-year extension. He’s now tied to Schalke until the summer of 2022, and he couldn’t feel more at home.
“Weston has shown in the past few months that he is more than capable of contributing significantly to the future of Schalke,” sporting director Christian Heidel said. “Thanks to his talent and his willingness to learn, Weston has made the rise from the U-19s to the Bundesliga and it’s been a success from the get-go.”
After returning from a thigh injury and starting in Saturday’s 1-0 win at Freiburg, McKennie has made five starts and nine appearances overall across Schalke’s 13 league and cup games. He recently moved into his own apartment—he’d been living with Taitague and at a hotel—and has chosen one in a “quiet” neighborhood. He’s not the eager, new guy choosing the hip downtown address. He said he prefers place “where I can go in and out without any disturbances.”
To figure out how a teenager from Texas got so comfortable, so quickly, in the Ruhr Valley, it’s important to note that he has friends there. Pulisic, Taitague and Schalke’s third American, forward Haji Wright (who’s on loan this fall with SV Sandhausen), offered an outlet and an important early social safety net. It’s also vital to understand that while Germany is a foreign country for McKennie, it’s not a foreign land. His family lived there for three years while Weston was a boy, because his father was in the U.S. Army and stationed at a base in Kaiserslautern.
“If a kid grows up next to a college football team, you eventually want to play for that team. For me, in my eyes, I feel like I grew up in Germany because I started soccer here. This is where I learned soccer was a sport. This is where I started by development,” McKennie said.
The Ruhr, an urban area in western Germany about 170 miles north of Kaiserslautern, is something like the equivalent of Big Ten country. Football occupies prime real estate inside its hard-working core. The industrial region is home to Schalke (in Gelsenkirchen), its archrival Borussia Dortmund and traditional clubs like VfL Bochum, MSV Duisburg and Rot-Weiss Essen. And Cologne, Leverkusen and Mönchengladbach aren’t far away.
“To live here, you have to be a big soccer fan,” McKennie said. “This community is based on hard work and we’re known as the coal miners [Die Knappen]. They used to mine coal. They’d go underground. If you play a game and they see you work hard but you’ve lost, 5-0, but you gave it your all and worked as hard as you could and left it on the field, they’ll still applaud you at the end.”
Waltz to a lucky 1-0 win, however, and you may get whistled.
“A lot of fans, they realize when you work hard and the think that’s good for the club. You have a good output of energy,” he said.
It’s also vital to appreciate and respect the Schalke-Dortmund rivalry. Bayern-BVB is watched more closely abroad. It’s certainly determined the destination of more trophies in recent years. But the Revierderby is a neighborhood scrap, and it means just about everything in those parts. The next meeting is November 25. McKennie was raised on rivalry. Dad was a die-hard Dallas Cowboys fan but Weston's older brother, born in Washington, was entranced by the Redskins of Clinton Portis and the late Sean Taylor. Weston sided with his sibling, and the McKennie house became a tense place on two Sundays every fall. That's the Ruhr on a much, much smaller scale. Twice a year, everyone is too close for comfort.
“When I got here, they’re like, ‘Your little friend down the road is playing for the wrong team.’ It’s funny. I’m a big Harry Potter fan and they’re like, ‘The one who should not be named,’” McKennie said.
His parents are making the trip across the Atlantic for the derby later this month, and his long bond with Pulisic—they met as 13 year olds—will have to be put on pause for a couple days.
McKennie would love to beat his friend. It'll hurt, but not for four years. He felt Pulisic’s pain from across an ocean last month.
“Most of those players had played in a World Cup before. Yes, it was a loss for them, but it was a big loss for Christian,” McKennie said. “He should’ve been one of those players who went [to the national team] to learn more and to get experience. But it sucks for him because he was involved in 12 out of 17 goals [in the Hexagonal] and he’s 19 years old. 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.”
Those are the words of a friend and a fan, but the point about the power and potential of youth is sound and it’s one McKennie makes over and over. He believes strongly that MLS should look toward the Bundesliga, where talented teenagers play despite the tangible threat of relegation. He’s seen young players make an impact for their clubs and countries. In conversation, he rattles off their names. And he’s ready to be one of them.
McKennie said he has allies in Schalke teammates like Leon Goretzka and Nabil Bentaleb. His parents call him a “social butterfly who can get along with everyone,” he said, but he's also a player who goes about his work in a manner that’s right for the Ruhr.
“They’re my competition and they could easily be like, ‘Screw you. I’m not going to help you.’ But those guys are really helpful to me. I can talk to Leon before a game. I’ve talked with him at halftime too, in games I’ve started. He’ll give his honest opinion. That’s the type of stuff that helps younger players develop and gain their confidence and feel comfortable in the team,” McKennie said. “I consider them my family on the field.”
Now, he can think about answering some of that familial banter. The reception at Schalke’s training facility the morning after the Trinidad defeat was not sympathetic.“Yeah, they said something. They said, ‘The USA is crap!’ They’re just, ‘Hey, how do you lose against Trinidad?’ I just sat there. I said I didn’t know,” McKennie recalled. “The other day, one of the club staff was saying he was talking to Breel [Embolo]—he’s from Switzerland—and Amine [Harit]—Morrocco—and he was like, ‘Weston, you can enjoy your summer vacation with Konoplyanka!’”
Yevhen Konoplyanka is Ukrainian. And like McKennie, he’ll have next summer off. Konoplyanka also is 28 years old. He's running out of chances. McKennie’s are just beginning, and if it feels to others like they’re coming too soon, it’s because the USA failed last month—not because the player isn’t ready.
It’s time to take something from that defeat.
“It’ll feel really good to be able to get back out and play for my country,” he said. “Anything that you do for the first time, you can see as a tryout. But I’m looking forward and I’m planning on staying with this team from here on out. We’ll see how it goes. Hopefully I get the opportunity to play and show what I have and how I fit in.”