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What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal: Weston McKennie

PARIS, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 06: Weston McKennie of Juventus celebrates after scoring his team's first goal during the UEFA Champions League group H match between Paris Saint-Germain and Juventus at Parc des Princes on September 6, 2022 in Paris, France. (Photo by Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images

Welcome to What Is This USMNT Guy’s Deal, a regular series in which Defector selects a name from the myriad number of exciting young American soccer men playing in Europe and answers the question: What is this USMNT guy’s deal?

As we round the corner towards the World Cup, the time has now come to ponder exactly how far the USMNT can go at the tournament. There’s no denying that they’re in a very tough group, likely battling it out against a Wales team led by Gareth Bale in his first and final World Cup appearance for the second spot in the knockout rounds. The winner of the group will get the second-placed team from a weak Group A, while the runner-up will most likely play the Dutch. All of that will be difficult.

This is all to say, if the USMNT is going to win their second-ever World Cup knockout round game, they will necessarily have to upset a superior team, which means it’s a useful exercise to construct a path to victory. What advantages can the USMNT press over better teams? Nobody should expect this team to park the bus and hope Matt Turner or Zack Steffen goes Tim Howard mode and saves one thousand shots. The U.S. can actually play a bit, so they don’t have to just hold on and hope for a counterattack. Also, Gregg Berhalter is not going to play a conservative lineup. The theoretical path to a big-time victory will be paved by the midfield, by Yunus Musah, Tyler Adams, and today’s Guy, Weston McKennie, running around and destroying things.

Who Does He Play For?

Weston McKennie plays for Juventus, one of the most storied clubs in Europe. He’s the first American to do so. McKennie followed a similar path to the top of the game as Christian Pulisic. Both Pulisic and McKennie lived in Europe for a short stint when they were six years old—Pulisic in England for one year and McKennie in Germany for five—before returning to the U.S. and playing for domestic youth sides. Both players finished off their youth careers with one season on German academy teams before breaking into their respective senior teams as teenagers. They each then played three seasons in the Bundesliga before moving on to perennial Champions League contenders abroad.

McKennie’s breakout campaign was one of Schalke’s final seasons in their impressive, short-lived run as one of the best clubs in Germany. They finished second in the league in 2017-18, and McKennie’s versatility helped him get onto the pitch for two-thirds of Schalke’s league games. A few years later, as Schalke was sliding down towards mediocrity and even badness, McKennie escaped the sinking ship and made it over to Turin. Despite, or perhaps due to, being a strange player, McKennie has cemented himself as a mainstay for the Old Lady, and he’s scored Champions League goals against both Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain. Every summer, I find myself thinking, This is the year McKennie’s technical limitations will get him sold from Juve to a lesser team, yet he’s still here, still doing his thing, still proving that he can hack it at the highest level.

The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test

The Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test refers to the following foolproof heuristic for determining whether or not a U.S. player is actually good or just good by our rosy American standards: Do fans tweet lovingly about them in their local language?

The name of the category is the Weston McKennie Mamma Mia Test.

How Does He Play?

Like I said, McKennie is kind of an odd player. Schalke didn’t know exactly what to do with him—the Germans at various times used him at center back and at center forward and practically everywhere in between. That much positional variety is more of a Schalke thing than a McKennie thing—he’s played under nine coaches since 2017—though it does hint at his impressive adaptability.

McKennie has earned consistent playing time in some truly crowded midfields at Juventus despite being the worst passer of the bunch almost every season. It is incredibly strange that McKennie has been such a key player for both Andrea Pirlo, famously a world-class passer of the ball as a player, and Max Allegri even though he bears almost no resemblance to the archetypal creative-passing, ball-spraying midfielder. His passing stats are so funny: Among midfielders in the Big Five leagues over the past calendar year, McKennie is in the 15th percentile of passes completed and attempted per 90, the sixth percentile for long passes attempted per 90, and the 13th percentile for progressive passing distance per 90. This hints at a player who is not going to help you build methodical attacks or bust the lines with passing wizardry. What McKennie does offer, though, is something much rarer and perhaps more useful, so long as his deficiencies are balanced correctly.

McKennie is a tremendous athlete and runner, who is deadly in the air and scores a lot of cool goals. His completion percentages are so low in part because he loves to try the most difficult pass on offer, which occasionally helps create goals out of nowhere. McKennie is a killer ball-winner in the midfield, and despite being pushed further up the field by Allegri, he’s still winning back possession for his team in dangerous areas all the time. He’s got a smooth touch and can also slalom through defenses with the ball at his feet. McKennie often plays alongside a bunch of guys who like to have the ball and create stuff, which makes him a helpful outlet for those passes and frees him from the responsibility to create things on his own. This freedom combined with McKennie’s nuanced positional awareness help explain why he always seems to pop up in dangerous areas at the right time. His silly winner against Mexico is a good encapsulation of the McKennie Mindset.

Oh also, the funniest thing about McKennie and his all-encompassing Americanness as a player within Juventus’s seemingly very un-American style is that he’s so good at MLS-style long throw-ins that Juve lets him chuck it into the box from dangerous areas, like a corner kick in slow motion.

Wonderteen Index

The Wonderteen Index is a holistic, objective metric that analyzes a player’s full array of skills and talents, distilling it all into a single number that corresponds to their ultimate potential and the likelihood that they will assume the title of Wonderteen.

McKennie just turned 24 and has been a pro in Europe for six seasons, so he gets a 20 out of 27.

The theoretically fully realized version of McKennie is a genuine world-class player. Guys who can run and scrap and dominate like McKennie who are also slick passers are very hard to come by, and can help make any team in the world better. The problem is that he’s not a N’Golo Kanté or a Paul Pogba, and despite similar athletic gifts, soccer’s main action is passing the ball. McKennie has improved since he broke through with Schalke, and he may still have some room to grow, but also, even if this is as good as he ever gets, that’s still pretty good. Tottenham and Liverpool have publicly lusted after him for years for a reason, and also, I’m a USMNT fan and his skills are especially useful at the more ragged international level.

Can He Play Right Back?

The U.S.’s European corps is absolutely silly with right backs, enough to stock a full XI. And so it is important to determine whether or not the USMNT guy of the week can play the position.

Weston McKennie has played a hilarious number of positions throughout the course of his short career in Europe, from the very front of the attack to the last line of defense. According to the places that track these things, here are those positions, in descending order of minutes played: central midfield, defensive midfield, right midfield, attacking midfield, left midfield, center back, striker, and, finally, right back.

Show To Me A Cool Highlight

Scoring against Barcelona, at the Camp Nou, with a kick like this is as cool as it gets.

How Does He Fit In With The U.S. Team?

He is one of the most important players on the team. A team that plays with a killer front three and cool fullbacks deputized to play as wingers despite a two-man central defense only works because the three midfielders can cover the ground of four players. Musah, McKennie, and Adams, in all their burly excellence, are the players who unlock the system and allow the team to take tactical risks like, say, letting Sergiño Dest go do And1 shit in front of goal instead of staying glued to his mark.

How Close Is He To The Hypothetical Best XI?

He starts every game unless he’s hurt.

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