CHESTER, Pa. — The last time Orlando City SC came to Talen Energy Stadium, back in April, teenage center back Mark McKenzie tentatively entered the game in the second half, making his MLS debut when he replaced an injured Jack Elliott.
When Orlando visited on Wednesday night, McKenzie looked nothing like that nervous teenager from three months ago, playing arguably the best game of his young career as the Philadelphia Union beat the Lions 1-0 in the U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals.
“He was a beast,” Union head coach Jim Curtin said. “His ability to not just dominate physically whether it is in the air, in duels, or in 1v1’s — but also what gets Earnie [Stewart] and I excited is how good he was with the ball. He played through the lines and played passes that eliminate five or six defenders at a time. I think he had one mistake maybe with the ball; we will still pick on him and be hard on him because we want him to get better. But we’re really happy with his growth.”
Curtin admitted that McKenzie has had some difficulties against some of the league’s top strikers since entering the starting lineup in April, particularly Atlanta United’s Golden Boot leader Josef Martinez. The Venezuelan international has scored four goals, three coming from the spot, in two games against McKenzie and the Union this year.
But on Wednesday, he teamed up well with fellow teenager Auston Trusty to take Orlando forward Dom Dwyer out of the game and lead the Union to their first shutout since a 4-0 win over Vancouver on June 23.
“I think that Mark McKenzie and Auston Trusty are playing well beyond their years,” Curtin said. “You are starting to see them now advance the ball through the midfield on the dribble, play through the lines. And they are are a really solid partnership there. Dom Dwyer is not an easy guy to deal with for 90 minutes. I thought they did an excellent job.”
While Curtin said Trusty still has aspects of his game he can work on, especially on the offensive end, the Union coach praised the rookie center back’s “physical tools” as “something I cannot really teach.”
“There is not a No. 9 in our league that jumps with him where I kind of worry,” Curtin said. “I think he has the ability to beat almost anybody on his defensive headers. … He has the ability to take this thing as far as he wants. Earnie [Stewart] and I talk about it all the time; he has the pedigree and the quality to play in Europe. That is not to say that I am endorsing that or anything like that because I want him here. At the same time, he has the potential to be a player at the highest level and that is fun to watch.”
Curtin noted it’s also been fun to watch the partnership grow between Trusty and McKenzie, two players who came up together through the Union’s academy. And they’ll look to continue to use what he called a “real bond” throughout the rest of the season, starting with another tough matchup Saturday vs. Zlatan Ibrahimovic and the LA Galaxy (7 pm ET | TV & streaming info).
“Zlatan is world class, so you watch film on him but you're not sure what to expect in a game," McKenzie said. "He could come out and do something completely different. It’s just a matter of keeping composed and understanding what the game needs and trying to eliminate his chances every time he gets on the ball.”