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SSFC Spotlight: Mark McKenzie claims first trophy in Europe

The defender won the Belgian Cup with Genk.

Standard De Liege v KRC Genk - Croky Cup Photo by Herman Dingler/BSR Agency/Getty Images

Since moving to KFC Genk in January, Mark McKenzie has earned regular playing time and is considered one of the league’s better young defenders. After recovering from a minor injury, he was able to appear in the Belgium Cup final, a 2-1 victory over Standard Liège. With a multitude of transfer options that included Celtic and various Bundesliga clubs, there was the potential to choose the wrong club, an unfriendly starting point on his European journey. Those fears appear to have been assuaged, although his career is still in the early stages.

Born in the Bronx to a Jamaican father and American mother, his family moved to Delaware to “seek better educational opportunities.” After playing with the Delaware Rush, Delaware United, and Wilmington Rangers youth soccer clubs, McKenzie joined the Philadelphia Union Academy, an organization whose reputation is rapidly growing as one of the premier locations for young American talent. As an amateur, he made nine appearances with Bethlehem Steel in the USL. Despite offers from Germany, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, the National Honors Society student with “ambitions of becoming a cardiac surgeon” enrolled at Wake Forest University. He was a bench player as a freshman, only starting after an injury to an upperclassman.

Despite a disappointing but ultimately meaningless college semester, the Union signed McKenzie to a Homegrown contract, with comparisons being made to Eddie Pope. “I had Mark on my U-14 back in the academy,” said manager Jim Curtin. “[Pope] is probably the best we’ve ever had in our country. So the potential for Mark, the ceiling, is very high. He still has a lot of things to work on and improve, but he’s laid a pretty good foundation.”

In his rookie season, he earned a part-time starting role and made 23 first-team appearances in all competitions. The next year was a setback after losing his position during training camp and struggling with an ankle injury, concussion, and appendectomy. The defender was relegated to the bench, only appearing in two senior matches before the end of August. The eventual return to the lineup was a permanent move that would last the rest of his time in Major League Soccer.

“In that period of time, it was frustrating, but at the same time it was a learning period in order for me to grow,” said McKenzie. “As long as I prepare properly, I won’t have to necessarily get ready when that opportunity gets there because I’ll already be preparing as if it was here. That’s something my father reiterates to me every day: preparation for the opportunity rather than just praying for the opportunity.”

The 2020 season was a true coming out party after signing a new contract. McKenzie made 22 appearances for the Union during the COVID-shortened schedule, claiming the Supporters’ Shield, the club’s first-ever trophy. He was named to the MLS is Back Tournament Best XI and MLS Best XI while finishing second in the voting for Defender of the Year. After a year of consistently high level performances, interest poured in from all over Europe, resulting in a minor bidding war.

Genk won the fight for his signature, reportedly paying Philadelphia a fee “in the region of $6 million plus performance-based add-ons.” He signed a four-and-a-half season deal that runs until summer of 2025. Not ready to move to a big five league, McKenzie was drawn to the Belgian club’s reputation for producing youth talent, a group that includes Thibaut Courtois, Kevin de Bruyne, and Kalidou Koulibaly.

“When I first knew Genk was interested, I was excited,” said McKenzie after signing. “They’re a club that develops and transfers players to the next level. That was promising for me. We all have to recognize where we are in our development. I still have holes in my game that I need to clean up.”

Following a brief adjustment period due to COVID-19 and relocation, recently hired manager John van den Brom deployed the new signing in a 3-2 loss to Club Brugge. McKenzie has served as a rotational starter, mostly appearing in place of Jhon Lucumí, who is reportedly due to leave the club this upcoming summer. The move to Europe from the Philadelphia Union forced him to adapt to the more up-tempo and intense style of play, forcing his improvement on “processing,” “[knowing] what you’ve got to do before you get the ball,” and “awareness.”

While causing a bit of stir for upsetting the established order, the recent Belgian Cup final demonstrates McKenzie’s current status at Genk. He is not one of the two first-choice center backs but trusted enough to see out a lead in an important fixture. The club views him as an important piece for next season, with the physical attributes and passing abilities to “fill the void” and eventually garner a significant transfer fee. As the Blauw-Wit gives him increased responsibilities, his international career should also grow in stature.

McKenzie has been a fixture with the national team program, progressing from the U-15 level all the way to the USMNT. He won the 2018 CONCACAF U-20 Championship and made three appearances at the 2019 U-20 World Cup, captaining the side to a necessary victory over Qatar in the final Group D match. His first call-up to the senior level came in 2019, but his debut cap waited until last year, playing 28 minutes against Costa Rica to close out January camp.

McKenzie describes himself as a “modern day center back,” preferring possession-based football while also physically setting the tone. The former attribute is evidenced by high passing attempt, long ball, and completion statistics, which have been present since his academy days. Slightly undersized at 6’, he has the athleticism and versatility to play fullback, but has rarely been used at the wide position. According to Breaking the Lines, one of his key strengths is the ability to close down on attackers, not allowing opponents to “make moves and turn.” Areas for improvement include defending in one-on-one situations, not getting caught flat footed, and positioning.

Off the field, McKenzie has not shied away from the spotlight, frequently choosing to speak out on social issues. “In addition to being football players, we are professional athletes and also influencers,” he told Knack. “Perhaps we in the United States are exposed to more things than we should be at our age, in terms of racism and inequality. From a very young age, we see things that you think are impossible. If you get a voice later as a professional, you have to bring it up… At the same time we also know: you are going to be criticized for this.”

There is a lot of competition on the center back depth chart for the national team, with a mix of reliable veterans and young stars breaking through in Europe. McKenzie made the right choice by challenging himself and moving to Genk, seeking the next step. Instead of opting for a bigger league, the shrewd decision to continue his development in Belgium could pay off handsomely with increased playing time and a subsequent transfer. While only having made two appearances at the senior level, the 22-year-old has the potential to become a significantly more influential player over the next year and earn a spot on the roster for the 2022 World Cup.