Curtin was involved with the academy as McKenzie grew up and has coached McKenzie since he signed his first professional contract as a Homegrown defender, earned his MLS debut, became a US national teamer and got named to the 2020 MLS Best XI.
It's with a proud, heavy heart that Curtin stands alongside as McKenzie moves on from the club, officially transferring to Belgian side KRC Genk earlier this week.
“I can say this definitively: There is no player more deserving or who worked harder," Curtin told media on a virtual press conference. "He’s had this dream since he was a 10-year-old boy in Union juniors. For this day to come, it’s truly special for Mark.”
Genk has a reputation as a development club, all while challenging routinely for trophies in Belgium and qualifying for European competitions. They have transferred the likes of Kevin de Bruyne (now Manchester City), Kalidou Koulibaly (Napoli), Leon Bailey (Bayer Leverkusen) and plenty others in recent years. They were the home of Alejandro Pozuelo, the 2020 Landon Donovan MLS MVP, before he joined Toronto FC.
The 21-year-old McKenzie is among Genk's most expensive incoming transfers. While prices have steadily risen as global soccer becomes more and more opulent, it's also reflective of how much they value and believe in the rising center back.
“When I first knew Genk were interested, I was excited," McKenzie said. "They’re a club that develops and transfers players to the next level, that was promising for me. We all have to recognize where we are in our development, I still have holes in my game that I need to clean up. ... They’ve been watching me for some period of time, they see areas of my game where I can grow but also where I can benefit the team. That balance made me keen on a move.”
McKenzie said his flight details are sorted and he's looking forward to traveling, going through COVID-19 protocols and then joining first-team training. Genk currently sit one point behind league-leaders Club Brugge.
“It’s another milestone for the Union, selling our second Homegrown for a really good price," sporting director Ernst Tanner said. "How the player developed, not only on the field but off the field in everything he did for the community, I’m very happy for the boy. It’s a reason to be really proud.”
Now, the Union shift focus to retooling their 2021 squad.
McKenzie follows fellow 2020 Best XI member Brenden Aaronson to Europe (Red Bull Salzburg) as the reigning Supporters' Shield winners look to continually challenge for trophies while developing the next wave of talent.
“We lost two Best XI players at a young age, but we have full confidence that the young boys we just signed and the veterans can do their job," Curtin said. "It’s set up where there’s a really strong pipeline of players coming in, but you do still have to find ways to win. First and foremost it’s about winning.”
Tanner noted that Philadelphia will sign another left-footed center back this winter. Jakob Glesnes and Jack Elliott are their current starters, so they still have talent at the position. There's also 16-year-old homegrown Brandan Craig behind the established pair.
With McKenzie and Aaronson officially gone, the next class of Union academy graduates have the chance and expectation to break into the first team.
“It’s another proof of concept," Tanner said. "As I always say, there’s more to come.”