Schalke's Weston McKennie says the box-to-box midfield role he occupies for the USA is his strongest position. - © imago images / RHR-Foto
Schalke's Weston McKennie says the box-to-box midfield role he occupies for the USA is his strongest position. - © imago images / RHR-Foto
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Schalke and USA star Weston McKennie: "I see myself as a box-to-box player"

Weston McKennie has played right-back, centre-back, defensive midfield, central midfield, attacking midfield and as a second striker for Schalke this season, but the USA international says he's at his best in a box-to-box role.

"My previous [Schalke] coach, [Domenico] Tedesco, he said he’s putting me in different positions so I know how to play these if I’m ever asked for it," McKennie - a midfielder by trade - told the18.com. "I guess one of the qualities of mine that always works in any position on the field is that I give 100 per cent. I work hard in whatever position you put me in. I think that’s a quality you can’t teach. It’s a quality you either have or you don’t.

"It’s the mentality of it. Obviously it was different playing centre-back sometimes, playing right-back and then playing forward in the derby we played in the first half of the season. I was playing forward and it was like, 'Oh God, I’m really playing forward right now against Dortmund?' Definitely not somewhere I feel most comfortable, but whatever I can do to help my team."

Watch: Weston McKennie discusses his versatility

McKennie's no-nonsense philosophy has certainly endeared him to the Schalke faithful in the former mining community of Gelsenkirchen. No matter what his position, the opposition or the Royal Blues' fortunes, the 20-year-old always gives his everything for the wider cause. Not even an ankle ligament injury sustained during the March international break could keep him down for long.

"I came back quicker than expected - a lot quicker than expected," recalled McKennie, who in the end missed just three Bundesliga matches because of the problem. "I thought I was gonna be out for the season, but German mentality. I came back here and then got it fixed up real quick.

"Whenever you’re injured, it’s like: 'I’m not doing anything to help my team. I’m not doing what I love to do.’ I came to Germany to follow my dream to play soccer. Whenever I’m not doing that or I can’t do that, it sucks. To be fair, it sucks."

McKennie speaks with similar disgruntlement about Schalke's performances this season. The Royal Blues finished Bundesliga runners-up in 2017/18, but were threatened with relegation until recently. A goalless draw against Augsburg secured their top-flight status with three games to go, though it was the previous week's 4-2 Revierderby win at Borussia Dortmund that effectively got them over the line into the Bundesliga safe house - and restored a healthy dose of pride to the ranks.

"With the season we’ve had this year, it’s been rough," McKennie admitted. "After a game, going to the fans and getting booed and whistled and everything, it’s rough. The derby definitely gave them a little gift back and made them believe again that it’s possible. The fans deserved it, for sure, for being behind us this long with the season that we’ve had. You definitely feel the pressure, but it’s something that you’re always going to feel as a player and something that you’ll experience at least once in your career ... unless you’re [Lionel] Messi."

Emotions were running high after McKennie (c.) helped Schalke record only their third Bundesliga win of 2019 - against Dortmund. - imago images / RHR-Foto

Much like Messi, McKennie is seen as a hugely positive role model in his homeland. Joining Schalke at 18, the Texan has gone on to make 57 first-team appearances since making his debut on the final day of the 2016/17 Bundesliga campaign. He's also played - and scored - in the UEFA Champions League, and collected eight senior international caps for the USA, finding the net in a friendly draw with European champions Portugal on his maiden outing in November 2017. For the new wave of Americans flocking across the Atlantic to the Bundesliga, there is no better inspiration.

"They ask you for advice," McKennie said, citing Bayern Munich youngster Chris Richards as an example. "Since you’ve been through it, they ask you how to get through this or handle this type of situation, especially being over here without family or anything.

"It humbles me because I was that kid that also looked at Christian [Pulisic] and people that came over before me and those people were big inspirations for me. So I know how it feels to look at someone and say 'what he did is something I want to do.'"

It wasn't all that long ago McKennie (r.) says he was looking up to Christian Pulisic (l.) - now he's playing alongside him for the US. - imago images / Icon SMI

Barring injury, McKennie will line up alongside the likes of Pulisic and RB Leipzig midfielder Tyler Adams when the USA begin their CONCACAF Gold Cup defence against Guyana on 18 June. It will be the Schalke all-rounder's first experience of senior-level tournament football for his country.

"I’m excited, especially knowing that the opportunity is big for us to win the Gold Cup, that makes it even more exciting, McKennie said. "I think it’ll be fun, it’ll be interesting. It’s our first real competition with this cycle and these new guys coming in. It’s our first experience playing for something, and I’m excited for it."

As for his specific role in Gregg Berhalter's new-look contingent, McKennie explained: "Playing a 10 role offensively and then defensively almost playing like a double six. I don’t like being just in one spot. Even if it’s defensive work, I like to go back and help my teammates out, but if it’s offensive, I like to try and score. Who doesn’t like scoring goals?

"So that box-to-box kinda role is where he sees me at and where I see myself also as the most valuable."