CHESTER, Pa. — Entering his second season in MLS, Philadelphia Union center back Mark McKenzie was expected to continue a rapid ascent that earned him Rookie of the Year consideration and a call-up to the U.S. men's national team camp in January.
But a series of setbacks — a preseason ankle injury, a concussion in March, appendicitis a few weeks later and some off-the-field family concerns — sent the 20-year-old on a more treacherous journey than anticipated in his sophomore season.
Entering Saturday's top-of-the-table clash against Atlanta United (7:30 pm ET | MLS LIVE on ESPN+ in US, DAZN in Canada), McKenzie has just one start under his belt, from the previous Saturday's 3-1 win over D.C. United at home. Prior to that, McKenzie had made just one first-team appearance this season as a substitute.
“As a competitor it’s frustrating because you want to be on the field as much as possible,” McKenzie says of his long absence. “I took a hit not being able to play, then trying to figure out where I was in the group and then getting my footing, getting fitness, so many different factors.”
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McKenzie was set to make his first start of the year against the Montreal Impact way back on April 20. But the night before the game, he went to bed not feeling well. By the following morning, he was at the hospital undergoing an emergency appendectomy.
“The doctor was talking about surgery and in my head, I'm like ‘oh my goodness, what is this? I have a game in 12 hours,’” McKenzie recalls.
The stitches were removed in time for McKenzie to join the United States Under-20 team for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland a few weeks later, though he was still working his way back to full fitness. Despite being named team captain, he only appeared in two of five matches, starting one.
“I wasn’t able to play as much as I wanted to," he says. "But as a leader I think I grew, just being able to talk with the guys and figure out ways I could help.”
Then in June in July, McKenzie had a run of games with Bethlehem Steel, the Union’s USL Championship affiliate, but on the MLS level struggled to find a way back into the first team, with Jack Elliott having another strong season pairing with his former academy teammate Auston Trusty on the back line.
As the Union surged in the standings and crowds starting packing the stadium in Chester, McKenzie found himself on the outside. But his coach always suspected he'd play a role at some point in the season.
“When you talk about soccer players in the United States that are going to play for our national team, everyone thinks development is just this steady ride and it goes perfect and that’s how everybody wants it to be,” said Union head coach Jim Curtin. “Part of development is also suffering and not being in the team and how you deal with adversity when things don’t go well.”
McKenzie’s performance in training showed he was ready for an opportunity, Curtin said, and after rotating veteran Aurelien Collin in for Trusty for three games, he turned to a defender he usually plays on the right side to pair with Elliott against D.C. United. It was his first start since a playoff loss to New York City FC last October at Yankee Stadium.
“I thought his performance against D.C. was exceptional and it comes to just putting your head down, getting back to work and doing it in training. And he really did that the last three weeks and we rewarded him with a start, and he stepped up in a big way,” Curtin said.
Homegrown midfielder Brenden Aaronson also made his first start since July after a dip in form. Despite scoring a goal himself in the victory, Aaronson said he thought his former academy teammate was the best player on the field in the 3-1 win.
“You have to give a lot of credit to him, because Mark hasn’t played all year and coming in like this and playing the way that he did is truly unbelievable,” Aaronson said.
That's no guarantee of a place in the team going forward, of course. So McKenzie is looking ahead to Saturday's clash with Atlanta, battling in training to maintain his spot in the starting lineup. But he also sees the benefits that come with overcoming what he's faced.
“At the end of the day, it was very important for me to go through that spell just to grow as a professional and as a person, to assess my game, assess what I want to do and the kind of player I want to be,” he said.
For Curtin, who lived through his fair share of ups and downs in his own nine-year career as an MLS center back, McKenzie’s response to the challenges has him even more excited about the defender’s future.
“I see it as a huge step in development and will make him better now as he moves on and becomes a center back for our national team — the full team,” he said. “I think he has that ability in him. But I think it’s important to stress these kids have to struggle too. And struggling is part of development, it’s not just going to be easy the whole time.”