Weston McKennie (c.) has started Schalke's last two Bundesliga games against Bayern Munich and Hoffenheim. - © © DFL DEUTSCHE FUSSBALL LIGA / Alexander Scheuber/Bundesliga/DFL via Getty Images
Weston McKennie (c.) has started Schalke's last two Bundesliga games against Bayern Munich and Hoffenheim. - © © DFL DEUTSCHE FUSSBALL LIGA / Alexander Scheuber/Bundesliga/DFL via Getty Images

Schalke's Weston McKennie: the Bundesliga's next American star

In the space of only a few months, Schalke midfielder Weston McKennie has gone from playing with the U19s to lining up against giants Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga, earning a new deal with the Royal Blues. But just where did the 19-year-old American spring from, and how far can he go? bundesliga.com takes a closer look...

We don't yet know where the story ends, but it begins in Germany.

As a child, McKennie lived for three years in Kaiserslautern - where his father was stationed in the military - and it was there that he discovered the sport that would change his life. One day, he took a softball outside to play with the kids in his street, but ended up playing football instead and fell in love with it. A few weeks later he even joined his first club, FC Phönix Otterbach.

Back in America, though, McKennie found himself at a crossroads, unsure whether to pursue a career in soccer or American football. In an interview with DW, he recalled sometimes trying to squeeze two games into one afternoon - scoring a couple of quick goals for his soccer team before racing across town to play football, strapping on his pads in the car. In the end, of course, he chose soccer - but the avid Washington Redskins fan still thinks he could have made it in American football - "if I'd stuck with it".

Watch: Meet Weston McKennie! (video courtesy of Schalke)

Instead, McKennie worked his way up the ranks and joined the FC Dallas Academy in 2009, representing the US at various youth levels along the way. He remembers meeting Borussia Dortmund star Christian Pulisic at around age 14, sitting next to him on the bus and squirting an empty water bottle in his ear. Incredible to think that five years later, the two friends find themselves on opposing sides of the Bundesliga's biggest rivalry.

"He's something else," McKennie said of Pulisic, a player he hopes to be joining in the senior USMNT setup before long. "He's a young prodigy, although I know he doesn't like it when people say that, because he's a really humble kid."

McKennie vs. Pulisic could be one of the fascinating subplots when the first Revierderby of the season rolls around on Matchday 13, but while the latter burst onto the Bundesliga scene as a 17-year-old in early 2016, there was absolutely no guarantee that the former would be enjoying first-team football with the Royal Blues when he joined their youth academy just over a year ago.

The young Texan had just enjoyed a stellar 2015/16, scoring 12 goals from central midfield for the Dallas Academy and captaining the US U19s to victory at the Slovakia Cup, earning MVP plaudits for good measure. Dallas were keen to retain him on an MLS Homegrown Player contract, while there was a verbal agreement for McKennie to play for the University of Virginia. But when Schalke came calling, there was only one possible outcome.

"Playing soccer in Europe is like coming to America to play basketball," he told ESPN. "I came over, and they showed me around the youth academy, the stadium. I talked to coach Norbert Elgert over the phone, because he was on holiday. And I kinda fell in love with the place."

McKennie joined the Schalke U19s in August 2016, excited at the prospect of working at the famed Knappenschmiede academy with renowned youth coach Elgert - the man who has developed some of Schalke's biggest stars in recent years, including four 2014 FIFA World Cup winners: Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Höwedes, Mesut Özil and Julian Draxler.

Schalke's Veltins Arena already feels like home to Weston McKennie.

"I'm really looking forward to Germany and Schalke," McKennie told the club's website after completing his move to the Ruhr Valley. "I definitely want to establish myself as a professional in Europe and to achieve that I'll give my all every day."

Operating primarily as a holding midfielder, McKennie enjoyed a successful campaign with the Schalke U19s, contributing four goals and three assists, and even captaining the side on five occasions as they lost their league semi-final on penalties to Bayern. That was enough to earn him promotion to the senior squad in May, along with fellow American Haji Wright.

"Thank God Haji is here," McKennie said of his fellow youth international, having struggled a little on his return to a country where he didn't really speak the language, with his old friends from Kaiserslautern a three-hour drive away. "It made it a bit easier for me."

McKennie and Wright were both on the bench for Schalke's final Bundesliga outing of 2016/17, away to Ingolstadt, but only the former got the chance to make his top-flight debut, replacing Donis Advijaj with 13 minutes to go. While Wright has since been loaned out to second-tier SV Sandhausen, McKennie has carved himself out a place in new coach Domenico Tedesco's plans.

"He's brilliant," the American recently said of his 32-year-old boss. "He's one of the youngest coaches in the Bundesliga and he's not shying away from the challenge, he's not backing off. He's coming at it full throttle. That's kind of how I try to take it on the field."

No kidding. McKennie played a total of 25 minutes off the bench in Schalke's early-season wins over RB Leipzig and Stuttgart, but still managed to pick up a yellow card in both games. While he accepts that he has a full-blooded style, he insists he is a "fair" player, and has no intention of penalising the team by picking up an unnecessary suspension.

McKennie was given a true baptism of fire for his first Bundesliga start, as Tedesco threw him into the deep end against Bayern and their formidable attacking line-up of James Rodriguez, Kingsley Coman, Thomas Müller and Robert Lewandowski. The Royal Blues were 2-0 down by the time McKennie was replaced by Breel Embolo on 57 minutes, and eventually lost 3-0. All part of the learning curve for McKennie, who is determined to fight for his place in midfield.

"You've got to be competitive, you've got to be hungry," he said. "In my position, we have Leon Goretzka and Nabil Bentaleb, two outstanding players. I can learn a lot from them, it's fun to compete with them in training. But I want to play more, I want to be the one that people remember."

Watch: 'Being able to play from the beginning is any kid's dream'

One of nine Americans currently plying his trade in the Bundesliga, McKennie is yet to make his full debut for the senior USMNT squad, but admits that he would "love to play" for Bruce Arena's side alongside his old friend Pulisic. He also says that the idea of taking on Dortmund's star midfielder in November's Revierderby at the Signal Iduna Park is an alluring prospect.

"It's one of those games where it's not just the coach who has to trust you - all the fans have to trust you as well," he told DW. "It can be good pressure or bad pressure. It can be pressure that breaks you or pressure that makes you."

Whatever lies in store for McKennie, he is certainly up for the challenge as he looks to become the Bundesliga's next American sensation. And who knows - perhaps a story that started in Germany with a six-year-old and a softball will continue to unfold here for many years to come.

Andy Smith

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