Schalke midfielder Weston McKennie has been busy ahead of the new Bundesliga season – firing the United States to the verge of CONCACAF Gold Cup glory.
Schalke supporters are already looking forward to the 2019/20 campaign – the Royal Blues start away to Borussia Mönchengladbach on the weekend of 17 August – but McKennie will have to wait a little longer before focusing on that.
While his club teammates have been knuckling down in pre-season training under new head coach David Wagner, the talented Texan has been helping his international colleagues sweep all before them at the Gold Cup. One of the host countries for this summer’s tournament, the U.S. – who are without injured RB Leipzig star Tyler Adams – have coasted into the final having conceded just a single goal.
That they have done so is in no small part down to McKennie, whose impressive progress with Schalke was rewarded late last month with a contract extension that will keep him in Germany until 2024.
The former FC Dallas player had scored on his senior international debut – against European champions Portugal in November 2017 – and has built on that international promise at the Gold Cup.
The 20-year-old set up the USMNT’s first goal at the tournament with a clever pass from the wing for Paul Arriola during the 4-0 win over Guyana, followed up with the winner against Curacao in the quarter-finals, and got the ball rolling in Wednesday's 3-1 semi-final win over Jamaica, with a striker's finish inside the first 10 minutes.
The Curacao goal was one fully made in the Bundesliga, with former Borussia Dortmund attacker Christian Pulisic – back on his home turf in Pennsylvania and captain for the night – whipping over an inviting cross that McKennie headed home at the back post.
It proved the only strike of a tight last-eight encounter, and set the U.S. on their way to Nashville for a semi-final match-up which had four goals in it.
Jamaica had Bayer Leverkusen winger Leon Bailey in their ranks, and they beat Gregg Berhalter’s side 1-0 in a pre-tournament friendly last month. Last weekend, they saw off Panama by the same scoreline in the Gold Cup quarter-final. But revenge was the USA's on Wednesday.
Watch: McKennie got his first Bundesliga goal for Schalke last October
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge, and we’re not expecting it to be anything less,” McKennie said before the Jamaica match, a repeat of the 2017 Gold Cup final that the USMNT won 2-1.
“We know it’s going to be hard, and we know that they’re going to come out and give everything they have.
The US didn't have it all their own way - Werkself winger Bailey assisted Shamar Nicholson for the goal that made it 2-1 - but they recovered quickly after conceding their first goal at the tournament.
McKennie sat out the last meeting with Jamaica, and their improved form since an unsuccessful 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign has coincided with his rise to prominence.
Since that goalscoring debut against UEFA Euro 2016 and UEFA Nations League holders Portugal, the U.S. have won seven games from 12 when he was in the side, and just three of their 10 without him. The with McKennie pile includes a draw with world champions France as well as a victory over CONCACAF rivals Mexico. He also had a hand in 17 percent of their goals in that time – not bad for a defensive midfielder.
This summer the USMNT are hoping to lift the Gold Cup for a seventh time, which would see them draw level with record champions Mexico - whom they face in the final Sunday - on the honours board. McKennie looks increasingly likely to be the man to drive them to that milestone, which would only good news for his club.
Two seasons ago the versatile youngster finished as a Bundesliga runner-up with Schalke, and in 2018/19 he played – and scored in – the UEFA Champions League for the first time.
A new coach in Wagner and fresh teammates like Ozan Kubak and Jonjoe Kenny will be waiting for McKennie when he travels back to Germany later this month. And with more experience, a winning habit, and potentially a Gold Cup winner’s medal in his back pocket, the Little Elm native will surely return to Gelsenkirchen both confident and reinvigorated ahead of his third full campaign as a Bundesliga player.