Pessimism permeates the United States men’s national team fanbase at the moment. The team has suffered two losses to Mexico in the past four months, Christian Pulisic can barely get off the bench for Chelsea, and stars Tyler Adams and Tim Weah are injured. But if you’re looking for something to get excited about heading into the next two games against Cuba and Canada, and for the rest of the season, it’s Weston McKennie.
McKennie’s club career is going great at the moment thanks to FC Schalke 04’s hiring of German-American coach David Wagner, who previously managed Huddersfield in England. Previous Schalke boss, Domenico Tedesco, had his team play a low defensive block and long ball-oriented attack that made the Royal Blues downright painful to watch. Wagner brought his high pressure style to Germany, and his team has lost just once in its first seven games, falling only to Bayern Munich.
“It’s been nice to watch the evolution of Schalke this season under David Wagner, I think he’s done an excellent job,” USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter said at a Thursday press conference. “They’re 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.”
McKennie, who had little to do but sit deep and clear long under Tedesco last season, is playing a more dynamic role under Wagner. He still has room to improve as a passer, but he’s been excellent in defensive transition, regularly helping to force turnovers that lead to scoring chances. He’s one of the Bundesliga’s elite pressing players, and he’s improved the rest of his game dramatically as well.
Here, from StatsBomb, are some of McKennie’s key stats from this season compared to last season. He’s far from elite at anything but pressing, but he’s starting to become a useful passer.
McKennie is enjoying playing for Wagner, and playing a more ambitious style of soccer.
“This year 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 says. “That’s been a fun way for us to play, and I think a lot of the players are having a lot more fun, realizing we can play instead of just sitting back and playing the ball long.”
McKennie adds, “We feel like [Wagner] believes in us. 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.”
Having McKennie on a team that plays attacking soccer, and asks him to contribute going forward, is important for the future of the national team. While Schalke could move McKennie into a more defensive role and buy pure playmakers, the USMNT does not have the same luxury. Young attacking talents are coming up through the USMNT pipeline, but for the foreseeable future, Berhalter needs McKennie to make creative contributions.
“[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,” Berhalter says about McKennie’s roles for club and country.
“They have the same idea of what type of role I play,” McKennie says about his two managers. “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.”
A decade ago, having any American player competing in Champions League and the Bundesliga was a dream. McKennie did it as a teenager. He has yet to round into a complete midfielder, but McKennie is undoubtedly one of the biggest talents to ever grace the USMNT. With a club manager like Wagner, McKennie now has the opportunity to make the most of those talents and become a cornerstone player for his country.