Weston McKennie: 10 things on Schalke's versatile USA midfielder
In the space of just two short years, Weston McKennie went from untried teenage hopeful to an established member of the starting line-up for both Schalke and the USA.
He already has a reputation as a hard-running, tough-tackling midfielder, but what else is there to know? bundesliga.com takes a closer look.
1) Life-changing spell in Kaiserslautern
Born and raised in Little Elm, Texas, there was little indication in McKennie's early childhood that he would go on to become a professional footballer - especially as he grew up playing American football.
That all changed in 2004 due to his father John's job in the US military. "It was time for me to make a permanent change of station and we decided to go to Europe to take advantage of travelling and seeing things," McKennie senior told US Soccer. That decision led to a three-year spell at the Ramstein Air Base located near Kaiserslautern.
"Germany was the starting point: I never knew soccer was a sport before," Weston said. "I went across the street to play with my brother sometimes and that's when I met my first coach." He eventually joined his first club, FC Phönix Otterbach, as a six-year-old in 2004.
2) Eight goals in a single game
The subsequent chapters in McKennie's fledgling career could not have been scripted any better by a seasoned Hollywood screenwriter, with one step leading to the next.
McKennie's first coach, David Müller, just so happened to be among the group of youngsters they would kick about with. "He never got the ball, but whenever he did touch it you could see he was really good," Müller recalled. "I went to his brother and said, 'Why don't you bring him out to the local team? I've just taken over as coach and it's exactly his age group'."
The boys' mother, Tina, duly did so, eager for Weston to have an outlet for is seemingly limitless energy. The result? McKennie scored eight goals – yes, eight – in his first game as a six-year-old and was bumped up two age groups as a result. That team did not lose a game for the next two years with the future Schalke star in their ranks, before it was time for his father to move on to his next post.
3) Inspired by Donovan
If that sparked a passion for football inside McKennie, meeting one of his country's all-time great soccer heroes really fanned the flames. With Germany hosting the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the US men's national team headed over for a pre-tournament friendly against Poland - in Kaiserslautern. McKennie was not going to let an opportunity like that pass him by.
In addition to having his picture taken with legends Landon Donovan and Carlos Bocanegra, McKennie also had the former sign his very own football boots.
"It was a lift-changing experience for me," Schalke's No.2 recalled years later. "I didn't know you could play in the national team: in [American] football you can't, so when I met those guys I thought, 'Wow, I can aspire to be bigger than just playing for my club'."
4) He could have played American football
After returning to the US, it was almost inevitable that McKennie - regardless of his love of soccer - would rediscover his love of American football. On several occasions he even tried to squeeze both sports into the same afternoon - knocking in a couple of quick goals for his soccer team before racing across town to take his place as a halfback, strapping on his pads in the car.
In the end, of course, soccer won out - but passions still flare in the McKennie household when it comes to American football. Weston and his older brother are avid supporters of the Washington Redskins, whereas their father is a die-hard Dallas Cowboys fan. Growing up with that rivalry has no doubt helped McKennie grasp the importance of the Revierderby between Schalke and Borussia Dortmund.
5) Best friends with Christian Pulisic
That particular rivalry was made all the more intense given McKennie's friendship with former Dortmund star Christian Pulisic. Born just three weeks apart from each other in 1998, the duo met as 13-year-olds at the first USA U14 camp and have been thick as thieves ever since.
"He's fun to be around, but he's definitely a dedicated player," said McKennie of his USMNT teammate. "I’ve known him since I was like 13 or 14 years old. So we've kind of grown up in the system together. Different paths, obviously. He was always a star ever since he was a young kid. I was always the one shoved off to the side; I had to find my way to come back in here."
Rivals they may have been at club level, but their friendship has given them a unique understanding on the pitch at international level with the US national team. "We’re pretty comfortable with each other," McKennie said. "We know [our] movements. The chemistry is there between us."
McKennie, incidentally, shades the head-to-head. They both started the 4-4 Revierderby thriller in 2017/18, before the Royal Blues won the reverse fixture that season 2-0. The last time they were on opposite sides was on Matchday 31 of the 2018/19 campaign, when Schalke prevailed 2-1.
6) Ambitious move
Picture it. You are 17 years old, and FC Dallas - where you have been playing for seven years - are keen to sign you on an MLS Homegrown Player contract. Meanwhile the University of Virginia have offered you a full college scholarship, which your father and brother are encouraging you to take. Oh, and there's a third option - Bundesliga side Schalke are keen to bring you over to Europe and see what you're made of. What do you do?
"I made the right decision and I don't regret it at all," McKennie said, after trusting his instincts and making an ambitious return to Germany. "It wasn't easy for me to let go of FC Dallas. But you've got to think, will I look back in 10 years and wish I could've gone over to Europe? I feel like if you can make it there, you can come back over here and play at a high level. But if as a kid you go into MLS and then try to come over to Europe, you might not be ready."
7) Making his mark at Schalke
McKennie arrived at Schalke in August 2016 and joined the club's U19s, where he had the opportunity to work with renowned youth coach Norbert Elgert - the man who developed 2014 World Cup winners Manuel Neuer, Mesut Özil and Julian Draxler, among others. Operating primarily as a holding midfielder, he enjoyed an excellent campaign, notching four goals and three assists and even captaining the side on five occasions. In the end Schalke lost their U19 Bundesliga semi-final on penalties to Bayern Munich, but McKennie had shown enough of his potential to earn promotion to the senior squad in May 2017.
Not that it was all plain sailing for McKennie upon his return to a country where he didn't really speak the language (although he now speaks it fluently). He initially lived with Schalke U23 player and fellow American Nick Taitague for several months, before moving out to find his own place.
He has matured on the pitch too since making his first Bundesliga start in September 2017, and even scored on his debut for the senior US side in November that year, earning a 1-1 draw against European champions Portugal.
Watch: McKennie's first Bundesliga goal for Schalke in 2018/19
8) His mother keeps him grounded
McKennie's mother Tina supported the move to Schalke, but, as he explained to German football magazine kicker, she won't stand for any diva-like behaviour from her son as he scales the Bundesliga heights.
"I know exactly who I am and where I come from," said McKennie. "My mom would bust my chops if I suddenly started behaving like a star."
9) Harry Potter fan
In addition to enjoying playing Fortnite, listening to music and playing with his dog, McKennie is a self-confessed fan of J. K. Rowling's boy wizard.
"When I got here, [people] were like, 'Your little friend [Pulisic] down the road is playing for the wrong team.' It's funny. I'm a big Harry Potter fan and Dortmund are like 'They-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named'."
10) Mr. Versatile
Although trained as a midfielder - and one who can play in a defensive role, as a box-to-box engine or further forward - such is McKennie's natural affinity for football that he can (and has!) played in a wide variety of positions for Schalke.
Former coach Domenico Tedesco fielded him at centre-back on more than one occasion, while he has also moonlighted as a right-back and even as a striker.
"I can play anywhere except goalkeeper, but if the coach asks me to play there, then I would," laughed McKennie when asked about his adaptability, before outlining his preferred role: "I'm more of a box-to-box player. I have defensive strengths and also offensive strengths. I like to be able to go forward. I don't really like to stay back the whole time."
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