How do you go from growing up in a Texan town of 25,000 people to playing in packed-out stadiums in Europe that house more than double that? Just ask Weston McKennie, whose single-minded approach to soccer helped him reach the top before he was out of his teens.
He might never even have heard about the game had it not been for his father John’s job in the US military, meaning the whole family moved to the town of Otterbach near the Ramstein Air Base in 2004.
In unfamiliar surroundings, young McKennie was forced to adapt. “I started playing American football, the earliest age I remember is when I was four,” he told bundesliga.com.
“And then I moved over to Germany and I couldn’t find a league or anything that had American football for my age group at that time, so I picked up soccer.”
As Sliding Doors moments go, this was undoubtedly McKennie’s. He joined his first club – FC Phönix Otterbach – at the age of six, and was an instant hit.
“He scored eight goals in the first game we had,” recalls youth coach David Müller. “So we moved him up two age groups and we never lost a game with him in the side.”
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 nearby 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 life-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'."
After three years in Germany the McKennies returned to Texas, and while young Weston threw himself back into American football as a halfback, soccer very much remained a part of his life.
“On the weekends me and my mum would go to my soccer game and I’d score a couple, then I’d leave to go to my American football game and I’d put on my pads in the car while my mum was driving,” he recalled.
Such commitment to both sports inevitably proved unsustainable and McKennie eventually chose soccer, rising up through the ranks at FC Dallas. By the age of 17 he had reached a crossroads: sign an MLS Homegrown Player contract with the club, attend the University of Virginia on a full scholarship, or move to Schalke in the Bundesliga.
The latter’s interest in him had initially taken him aback, and McKennie had no hesitation in agreeing to the switch.
"I made the right decision and I don't regret it at all," he said. "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."
McKennie arrived at Schalke in August 2016 and was initially earmarked for the U19s. By the end of that season, however, he made his senior debut in the Bundesliga for the Royal Blues at the age of 18, coming on in the 77th minute of a 1-1 draw against Ingolstadt on Matchday 34 in May 2017.
He has not looked back since and just six months after that watershed moment, another arrived. McKennie scored on his debut for the senior US team in November, earning a 1-1 draw against reigning European champions Portugal.
"He’s an outstanding talent," said Schalke boss David Wagner, himself a former USA international. "In the No.6 or No.8 position he has the mentality – a real working mentality – that you need. And he’s brave on the ball as well. He’s also very good in the air and he’s young, so there is a lot more to come but we’re very happy to have him in our team.”
The appreciation is very much mutual. “Schalke were the ones that gave me an opportunity and believed in me when others didn’t, so I owe them a lot,” McKennie said.
He repaid that faith in him in over 90 competitive games for the club, establishing himself as a full US international and earning a reputation as a tenacious, versatile midfielder. He will undoubtedly be missed in Gelsenkirchen following his transfer to Juventus, but he heads south to Italy as another Bundesliga success story.