It’s noteworthy, perhaps historic, that the winner of the 2020 U.S. Soccer male player of the year award is a 22-year-old midfielder who, after standing out for struggling Bundesliga side Schalke 04 in the spring, became the first American player to sign for mighty Juventus.
It’s equally noteworthy that Weston McKennie, who’s played 13 times and already scored twice for the Bianconeri, beat out U.S. teammates at Barcelona, Chelsea and RB Leipzig for the American game’s most prestigious honor.
After a couple down years for the men’s national team program, not only has the player of the year award recouped some of its luster, it’s also become much tougher to win. And that trend is likely to continue as more U.S. players climb the club pyramid in Europe and play games at the highest level. MLS players are eligible as well, of course, but the bar for contention has been raised considerably.
It’s yet another sign that the USMNT has entered a new era.
McKennie, 22, won the award after being named on 44% of the ballots cast by national team coaches, players who were called up to the USA in 2020, members of the U.S. Soccer Federation board of directors and Athletes Council, MLS and USL head coaches, media members and “former players and administrators,” according to the USSF. Each voter selects just one nominee. Last year’s winner, Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, finished second with 27% of the vote and Barcelona’s Sergiño Dest placed third at 14%. The other finalists were Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders) and Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew).
McKennie was informed Friday after training in Turin by new National Soccer Hall of Fame inductee Carlos Bocanegra, who met McKennie in 2006 when he was a child growing up at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. McKennie has said that meeting, which also included Landon Donovan, sparked his dream to play for the national team.
“I want to thank everyone for this huge honor. It’s been a journey, especially through these difficult times during the pandemic,” McKennie said. “Our fans have stuck with us throughout and we really appreciate it. Hopefully in 2021 we can have many more memories together.”
The pandemic limited the USA to four friendlies in 2020, and only two of those came during a FIFA window and were open to players based in Europe. McKennie started and excelled in those October games, a 0-0 draw at Wales and a 6-2 win over Panama. But this was a year in which club performance was going to take precedence, and McKennie’s was good enough at Schalke to earn the move to Juventus. Once there, he attacked the opportunity. He’s made eight starts already, including three in the UEFA Champions League, and there are reports that Juventus is ready to make his loan from Schalke a permanent transfer.
McKennie is the fourth-youngest recipient of the award, which was first handed out in 1984. He finished third last year, but the 2019 honor was a two-man race between Pulisic and Morris. It was an uneven period for the USA as coach Gregg Berhalter looked to get comfortable and implement his system during his first year in charge.
The Americans advanced to the Concacaf Gold Cup final but were beaten by Mexico on a frustrating night outside New York City. Then there was the embarrassing Nations League defeat to Canada in Toronto. By year’s end, only Pulisic and Morris really stood out. Pulisic tallied three goals and three assists at the Gold Cup and then completed his move to Chelsea, for which he scored five times. Morris was outstanding for Seattle in MLS, notching 13 goals and eight assists, but no one else really staked his claim during a year of national team transition.
Goalkeeper Zack Steffen was named player of the year in 2018, an even stranger period marked by coach Dave Sarachan’s interim tenure, a lot of friendlies and a voting dynamic that saw Adams and McKennie split the “exciting European prospect” vote. Steffen started in five of the USA’s 11 games and backstopped the Crew to the MLS Cup quarterfinals as he was named MLS’s goalkeeper of the year. In 2018, that was enough.
The year before, untainted by the USA’s World Cup qualifying failure, Pulisic won the first of his two awards with a ridiculous 94% of the vote. That type of landslide won’t happen again. That year, the voting was an indication of crisis. This time and in the future, it’s likely to reflect the unprecedented growth and progress of the American player pool.