USA midfielder Weston McKennie (l.) is thriving under countryman coach David Wagner (r.) at Schalke. - © imago images/Uwe Kraft
USA midfielder Weston McKennie (l.) is thriving under countryman coach David Wagner (r.) at Schalke. - © imago images/Uwe Kraft

Weston McKennie tips hat to David Wagner after netting historic US hat-trick against Cuba

Weston McKennie says he is feeling the full benefit of playing under David Wagner at Schalke, after scoring the fastest hat-trick from the start of a match in USMNT history in his country's 7-0 rout of Cuba in their inaugural CONCACAF Nations League outing.

McKennie scored three times inside 13 first-half minutes at Audi Field in Washington DC, with his 30th-second opener clocked as the second quickest in USMNT history - one second behind Clint Dempsey's strike against Ghana at the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

The 21-year-old midfielder also provided two assists, before being withdrawn at half-time with the US leading 6-0.

Werder Bremen striker Josh Sargent joined McKennie on the scoresheet, while former Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic completed the rout from the penalty spot in the second period.

Claiming the Budweiser Man of the Match gong, McKennie revealed how the freedom afforded to him at club level by recently installed Schalke coach Wagner has elevated his game.

"He's really big on playing our style, and our style is with high pressure and counter-attacks, as well as keeping the ball well and combining," McKennie said of the former Huddersfield Town boss. "That’s been a fun way for us to play, and I think a lot of the players are having a lot more fun, realising we can play instead of just sitting back and playing the ball long.

"He’s more on the attacking side and wants us to play our style. He always says that he gives us ideas, it’s not something we just have to stick to, he understands that we have our own individual qualities that we can apply to the game and he wants us to do that. In a way he has a leash on us, but he lets us free sometimes, too."

McKennie played in all manner of positions for Schalke last season, but has been deployed in his preferred central midfield role for much of the current campaign. - imago images/RHR-Foto

McKennie's part in Schalke's mini revival - the Royal Blues went into the October international break in sixth place, having flirted with relegation last season - has been quietly understated, but effective.

He has made all five of his starts in his preferred central midfield role, with his average pass completion up from 69 per cent to 78 per cent compared to 2018/19, whilst forcing more turnovers to a shot on goal per game (2.38), winning more tackles and pressing the opposition with greater regularity.

Like Wagner, US head coach Gregg Berhalter is also a fan of giving McKennie - a self-styled No.8 - licence to roam. "[Wagner] has ideas that they want to get Weston involved, he wants him arriving late in the penalty box, being an attacking midfielder, so there are a lot of similarities," the USMNT coach said about McKennie's role for club and country.

"Wagner has done a great job. Schalke are a very dynamic team: a lot of emphasis on counter-attacking, and organized, but they still have some very creative players. It's good to see Weston performing in that team."

Gregg Berhalter's right-hand man: McKennie has become a cornerstone of the current US side. - imago images / Icon SMI

McKennie's hat-trick heroics on only his 16th outing for the senior national team represent another milestone moment in the whirlwind career of one of US soccer's most exciting players.

The Texan was on target on his US debut in a friendly against Portugal at the age of just 19, officially becoming the third youngest debutant goalscorer in USMNT history, and last season became the second youngest American to find the net in the UEFA Champions League (20 years, 37 days) after Pulisic (18 years, 171 days) with his strike against Lokomotiv Moscow.

He even captained the US in their 2019 Gold Cup final defeat to Mexico, despite being only 20 at the time and seven of the starting XI having greater international experience, and recently broke the Bundesliga's 50-game barrier.

Watch: Weston McKennie opened his Bundesliga account in October 2018!

It is little wonder McKennie - off to a flying start in this only his third full season as a pro - is enjoying playing under Wagner and Berhalter so much.

"They have the same idea of what type of role I play," he said of his club and country mentors. "They both know that I’m good at applying pressure to the defense, breaking up play and winning tackles. They also know that I can bring some flair to the game in offensive plays."

McKennie is set to start against Canada in the USA's second Nations League match-up on 16 October, before returning to domestic action four days later when Schalke travel to Hoffenheim.