From Dallas to Schalke: Weston McKennie's rise to the USMNT
The final day of the 2016-17 Bundesliga season was a special one for then 18-year-old midfielder Weston McKennie made his debut for Schalke, entering in the 77th minute, becoming the ninth American to play in Germany's top flight.
The debut itself was rather innocuous. It was the final game of the season against an already-relegated FC Ingolstadt, and Schalke had been reduced to 10 men thanks to a second-half red card. McKennie hardly saw much of the ball, completing four out of nine passes, winning a tackle here, and an aerial duel there.
Even so, it was the culmination of a whirlwind year for McKennie, who only signed with Schalke in August 2016. It was the first steps of another promising U.S. career set to take rise in the Ruhr Valley. And in the months following, McKennie established himself as part of Schalke's first team. He also scored against Portugal in his senior U.S. men's national team debut in the Americans' first match since failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
In May 2016, McKennie was verbally committed to play soccer at the University of Virginia and preparing for the Development Academy playoffs with the FC Dallas. In many ways, he couldn’t have been further from taking the field in Gelsenkirchen.
The tough, cerebral midfielder had already emerged as one of the best young talents in the country at Dallas’ vaunted academy. Both dogged and determined, McKennie was able to dominate games in the Development Academy at the end of his club career, dictating the tempo of matches and making it look easy against his peers.
But he was hardly a flash in the pan, as his climb up the ladder has been slow and steady rather than rapid. A staple of various U.S. youth national teams dating back to the Under-14 age group in 2012, the Texas native earned a call-up at just about every age group over the past five years. He missed out on a spot with the 2015 U.S. Under-17 World Cup team that featured current club teammate and Haji Wright (on loan to start the 2017-18 season) and club rival Christian Pulisic.
The summer of 2016 became a defining juncture for the youngster. Already armed with a homegrown offer from FC Dallas, McKennie eventually opted to sign with Schalke, officially joining the Bundesliga side’s U-19 team after he turned 18 that August.
Until last weekend, McKennie spent the bulk of his time during the season with the Schalke’s U-19 side – with the lone exception an appearance with the first team in a friendly held over an international break – biding his time and working his way towards his debut.
An injury briefly sidelined him, but he was back and earned his way into a starting role in central midfield. Schalke’s U-19 season came to an end in the semifinals, losing on penalty kicks after a 5-5 draw with Bayern Munich over two legs. McKennie performed well despite his team blowing a 3-1 lead from the first leg, and it was quickly announced that he would be promoted to the first team for both the final weekend of the season and the 2017-18 campaign.
His improvement since last summer is substantial. While FC Dallas certainly is a cut above the rest when it comes to developing players, in less than a year, McKennie’s development has clearly accelerated. Already a step ahead of the opposition at the tail end of his Development Academy days, the U-19 league posed challenges that could push a player of his caliber. The work he put in to improve during that stretch surely played into the coaching staff’s decision to hand him a first team promotion.
Perhaps the only negative that can be cast his way isn’t really one at all, as McKennie’s involvement with Schalke meant that he was unable to take part in the Under-20 World Cup. There’s little doubt that he would be a valuable asset for head coach Tab Ramos in South Korea, though the tiny taste of first team Bundesliga soccer is likely to leave him hungry for more next season.
One 13-minute shift is far from career defining. Youth prospects receive no guarantees, and the threat of an injury or a fall in form can always derail even the most promising prospects. But McKennie is already enjoying first-team success with Schalke, starting four Bundesliga matches prior to his senior U.S. men’s national team debut.
This profile was originally published on May 26, 2017. It has since been updated.