The last time that United States Men’s National Team fans saw Schalke 04 utility man Weston McKennie dress in the red, white, and blue, the Texan suffered what looked to be a severe ankle sprain against Ecuador in a friendly on March 21st. Diagnosed as a ruptured left ankle ligament, there was concern that the 20-year-old might miss significant time with Schalke, leaving his participation in the upcoming Gold Cup in question.
McKennie however, was back on the field for the Gelsenkirchen club a month later, helping Schalke avoid an embarrassing relegation from the Bundesliga. And this week, McKennie joined up with his USA teammates, although he was kept off the squad for Wednesday’s loss to Jamaica at Audi Field.
It wasn’t exactly the club season McKennie was hoping for, but ultimately, keeping the club in Germany’s top flight was a mission accomplished for the midfielder.
“[It was definitely] not the season we wanted to have, and the ending we wanted to have as far as wanting to win on the last gameday,” McKennie told Stars and Stripes FC on Tuesday, after the USMNT practiced at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. “We did accomplish our goal of not getting relegated, and not letting it come down to the last game.”
“It was a season that you learn, and you try to prevent from happening again.”
It was a season that began with high hopes for Schalke, after they qualified for this year’s edition of the UEFA Champions League. McKennie would go on to log 33 appearances in all competitions for the Royal Blues, including 25 starts. Schalke’s Champions League run ended in the Round of 16, at the hands of English side Manchester City.
Schalke’s poor form in the league though led to a coaching change in March. Towards the end of the season, former US international David Wagner, most recently with Huddersfield Town in England, was named the new manager for the start of the 2019-2020 season.
Wagner’s exploits with Huddersfield, getting them promoted to the Premier League in 2017, weren’t exactly on McKennie’s radar. But the 8-times capped national teamer spoke to a former USA international to get the low down on his new club manager.
“I got word from Danny Williams, who played under him at Huddersfield. He said [Wagner] is your normal German coach,” said McKennie. “He likes hard work, he likes pressing, that style of play. I’m excited to get in, and it’s nice that there’s an American side to him too. That’s a good thing for me.”
Before McKennie gets his third full professional season started though, he’s trying to help the US get back into an international spotlight, after the US missed out on the 2018 World Cup. That quest starts this month, with the USMNT looking to retain their Gold Cup trophy, the first competitive games under new manager Gregg Berhalter.
In addition to the friendly against Jamaica, the USMNT will face Venezuela on Sunday before beginning their Gold Cup on June 18th against Guyana. This week is the first chance that the majority of the group that will participate in the Gold Cup is together, giving the team a chance to hone in on the tactics that Berhalter will deploy during the tournament.
“We are focusing on getting everyone on the same page physically and mentally and tactically,” said McKennie.
For McKennie, getting into USMNT camp might bring a sense of stability on the field, at least in terms of where he might line up for Berhalter. For Schalke, Weston has been used in a variety of positions, in attack, midfield, and even finishing off the season in a three-man backline.
That kind of malleability is useful, but McKennie knows that Berhalter has a much clearer idea of where he can be used in the US setup.
“It’s something that I would like to have, to be able to play in my position at the club level,” McKennie told Stars and Stripes FC. “At that moment, we didn’t have many options, and I accepted that. In those moments, you have to be selfless and think about the team before yourself.”
“It’s also good knowing that when I come here, I have a set position, I know what [Gregg] wants me to play here, I know what he sees for me, position-wise.”
McKennie said that he hopes that the team can change the perception of US Soccer, which took a hit when Trinidad and Tobago beat Bruce Arena’s side 2-1 back in October 2017. More importantly now, though, is getting back on track within the Concacaf region and keeping hold of the silverware that was won at the 2017 Gold Cup.
“Our goal right now is to focus on short term, and that’s the Gold Cup,” said McKennie. “We want to put on a good show there, and show people that we are taking a step in the right direction.”