Weston McKennie made the wrong choice four weeks ago, and he paid for it. The 23-year-old midfielder, who’s a vital cog and commanding presence on a young and talented U.S. men’s national team, was benched and then sent home following a significant breach of team rules and coronavirus protocol. As a result, McKennie missed two crucial World Cup qualifiers and became the subject of the sort of conversation and scrutiny that every athlete wants to avoid.
Since then, however, it appears that he’s done everything right, at least according to U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter. McKennie owned up to his error publicly and privately, accepted his responsibility and punishment, and cheered on his U.S. teammates via social media. So on Wednesday, he was included on the list of 27 players called in for next month’s qualifiers against Jamaica, Panama and Costa Rica. As far as Berhalter is concerned, McKennie is back as a full member of the squad.
“I spoke to Weston. He was very forthcoming at the time. And as far I’m concerned, this is something that’s done,” Berhalter said Wednesday following the roster release. “He’s still going to be held accountable for his behavior. Everybody’s going to be held accountable. But this isn’t something that we hold on guys. That’s not the type of culture we have in the group, and it won’t be moving forward. Weston’s back in. We had good conversations with him and he’s focused on helping the team win.”
McKennie played the entirety of the Octagonal opener in El Salvador on Sept. 3 and then traveled with the rest of the U.S. to Nashville, where he trained the evening prior to the Sept. 6 qualifier against Canada. On match day, however, it was announced that McKennie was removed from the lineup following a “violation of team policy.” He then was sent back to Italy, where he plays for Juventus, ahead of the 4–1 win at Honduras on Sept. 9. The U.S. finished the September window 1-0-2 and in third place in Concacaf’s eight-team qualifying competition.
McKennie started two of Juve’s subsequent five matches and was on the bench to begin Wednesday’s UEFA Champions League showdown against title-holder Chelsea.
The gravity of McKennie’s mistake was evident by the decision to remove him from the squad in Nashville. Voluntarily dispensing with one of your most important players during such an important stretch is no small thing. But on Wednesday, Berhalter insisted that perspective must accompany the punishment. The manager demonstrated his commitment to team culture and discipline four weeks ago. Now he’s asking that those be balanced with an allowance for youth, inexperience and human fallibility.
“I’m glad we’re addressing this right away. Because when this thing happened, we stressed the importance of us having a young team, people making mistakes and people being held accountable for their mistakes. And that’s exactly what it was and what it is,” Berhalter said.
"The one thing I didn’t love how this whole thing got spun is just the lack of tolerance, a lack of understanding for a player’s situation—for the fact that we have a young group and this group needs to learn,” he continued. “I think we’re way too quick to condemn people and not really understand a player’s perspective. Listen, his behavior was unacceptable. He took responsibility for it, and we move on. We really do move on. But will he be accountable in the future? Absolutely. That’s going to be part of it. He understands that. The group understands that. So we move forward.”
McKennie was elected two years ago as one of six members of the national team’s Leadership Council, which functions not only as a conduit between the players and coaches, but as sort of a collective quasi-captain in place of a single, permanent figurehead. Game to game, the armband typically is passed among members of the Council, and McKennie captained the U.S. in the May friendly at Switzerland.
Berhalter has not addressed McKennie’s current status as a member of the Council. But he did say Wednesday that the midfielder is ready to do the work required to re-establish his place within the squad.
“You work through it and the player takes responsibility, and I think there is part of it that you move forward and you say, ‘O.K., it’s a clean slate for you,’” Berhalter said. “But there’s a certain amount of trust that Weston needs to rebuild with the group and he’s willing to do that, and I think that’s the important thing.”
Then it will be time to take the field and re-establish his influence there. McKennie has had an uneven start to the season thanks to his issues in Nashville and uneven performances at Juventus, which has endured an uncharacteristically slow start in Serie A. Following last week’s league game at Spezia, Juve coach Massimiliano Allegri told reporters that McKennie “should have scored at least four goals” in the 3-2 win.
“There are players who have important qualities and who need to improve,” Allegri said.
Berhalter clearly has retained his faith in McKennie in more ways than one.
“He’s a top-quality player,” Berhalter said Wednesday. "We’re still waiting for him to hit the top form with Juventus. We know he can do it. We’ve seen him do it in the past. They’re working with him hard. He’s working hard on his game and we’re confident he’s going to get to a good spot.”
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