Schalke's flame may have flickered, but USA midfielder Weston McKennie's star burned bright over the course the 2019/20 Bundesliga campaign. bundesliga.com analyses the 21-year-old's third full season as a pro...
It all started so well for Schalke under new coach David Wagner. The Royal Blues were fifth at the halfway stage - only outside the coveted top four on goal difference - but things went south in the new year.
After kicking off 2020 with a 2-1 victory over second-in-the-table Borussia Mönchengladbach, the Gelsenkirchen outfit failed to record maximum points again before the season was out. A 4-0 humbling at Freiburg on the final day extended their club record winless run to 16 league matches as Schalke crossed the line in 12th - only two places and six points better off than the previous year.
A raft of personnel troubles coupled with a profound lack of goals contributed to Schalke's post-winter blues. Midfielders Suat Serdar and Amine Harit - the club's top scorers with seven and six goals apiece respectively - missed the season run-in through injury. Summer signing Benito Raman ended the campaign without a goal in 16 matches, having registered all four of his league efforts between Matchdays 12 and 15 - while Austria international Guido Burgstaller failed to snap a scoreless cycle dating back to the penultimate weekend of 2018/19.
A team that had struck 29 times in 17 Hinrunde matches tallied a league-low nine during the second half of the season. McKennie accounted for three of them.
Although a central midfield player by trade, capable of also playing in defence as he did on three occasions for Schalke in 2019/20, McKennie has previous in the final third.
The former Dallas FC academy prospect produced four goals and as many assists in his maiden U19s campaign on German soil, performances which earned him a Bundesliga debut on the last day of the 2016/17 season. He opened his professional account on his USMNT debut in a friendly against European champions Portugal, stuck away his first goal for the Schalke seniors in only his second UEFA Champions League appearance and helped himself to a 13-minute hat-trick in a 7-0 rout of Cuba in the CONCACAF Nations League.
McKennie's first Bundesliga goal was 26 matches in the making, falling as it did on his 27th outing in the German top flight in a 2-0 win against Fortuna Düsseldorf. Thirty-eight league games later - during which time he chipped in with four assists - the 19-time US international was at it again with a goal in the 1-1 draw Hoffenheim on Matchday 25 of 2019/20 in what was Schalke's final game before the coronavirus-enforced hiatus.
Of the five goals Die Knappen scored in nine matches following the restart, McKennie hit two - in defeats to Düsseldorf and Eintracht Frankfurt. Knappenschmiede-reared striker Ahmed Kutucu, Augsburg loanee forward Michael Gregoritsch and centre-back Ozan Kabak shared the rest.
Watch: Weston McKennie scored a sensational diving header on Matchday 28
Occasional goal bursts go in hand-in-hand with a player who sees himself primarily as a No.8, but any box-to-box midfielder worth his salt has to be able to defend and build from the back. McKennie fits that bill.
His 60.2 per cent success rate for aerial challenges won (77 overall) was second only to Kabak across the Schalke squad, and significantly more than Bayern Munich's 2014 FIFA World Cup-winning sentry Jerome Boateng (49). He won out in 51 per cent of his ground tackles, putting him comfortably in the top four for Schalke players, while a team-leading 85 per cent of passes found a man.
The receipt of eight yellow cards across his 28 appearances was his one solecism, but he never crossed the line. A red card-free report card is perhaps to be expected from the son of a military man.
Watch: McKennie's roots
Fittingly, McKennie is becoming a general in his own right. Stationed alongside Omar Mascarell in the engine room, the US bastion is one of Schalke's most vocal players. His steadfast application has been well received by the club's working-class fan base, and he has already expressed his desire to one day wear the captain's armband.
Following the summer departure of goalkeeper Alexander Nübel (Bayern) and right-sided midfielder Daniel Caligiuri (Augsburg), the American has to be considered a prime candidate for one of the two vacancies in the club's five-man team council at the very least.
"He has embraced this role of taking on more responsibility on the pitch," commented Wagner, reviewing McKennie's endeavours in 2019/20. "He is a leader."
A mover and shaker on and off the pitch, McKennie has teamed up with USMNT contemporaries Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig) and Christian Pulisic (Chelsea) to donate to 'Feeding America,' the largest hunger-relief organisation in the United States. He has also been outspoken on issues of civil rights.
It's still very early days in the career of the Texan trailblazer, but McKennie has already shown he has what it takes to become the heart, soul and midfield brains of the operation for club and country.