Weston McKennie is in contention to make his Juventus and Serie A debut on Sunday when his new club open their 2020-'21 league campaign with a home date vs. Sampdoria, becoming – depending on your criteria – the sixth or seventh US player ever to feature for a top-flight Italian club.
It’s another massive milestone for one of the United States’ most talented players and a happy moment for the MLS club that helped set him on his current trajectory, even if he’s the one that got away in the story of the FC Dallas “Play Your Kids” movement.
“I’m proud, so proud – and not surprised – to see where he is and the potential opportunity he has now in Serie A, playing against some of the best players in the world, against the best competition and side by side with some of the best players as teammates,” FCD head coach Luchi Gonzalez said in a conference call with reporters.
“He's a great teammate. And he's not just talented, but he performs, he steps it up, he embraces challenges. And I'm hopeful he’s going to do that here at the highest level in Serie A and continue doing it for our senior national team.”
A longtime youth coach and the former FC Dallas academy director before stepping up to his current job, Gonzalez worked with McKennie for much of the do-everything midfielder’s seven years with FC Dallas, where his character and personality impressed those around him just as much as his talent, dedication and work ethic.
“Weston has always been socially very sharp. He's got great social skills in the locker room. He was always a social leader, making guys laugh, having great discussions and integrating everybody, loving everybody, including everybody, respecting everyone; players, staff, different age groups,” said Gonzalez.
“Weston played in different age groups in our club in the academy, was always playing with a big smile on his face, and just loving the moment to be out there. So those are my recollections of him, just enjoying being part of our family here. But then when that whistle blows and we have to play and it's 11-vs-11, and there's a winner and a loser, he's such a competitor. He’s got amazing energy, so confident with the ball.”
McKennie fell in love with the beautiful game while living in Otterbach, Germany during his early childhood thanks to his father’s military service. When the family returned to Texas, he rose to prominence on the Dallas/Fort Worth area’s bustling youth soccer scene, turning the heads of FCD coaches while starring for their local rivals Solar SC and eventually taking his budding career to Frisco and FC Dallas at age 11.
“It was a no-brainer,” McKennie told a local outlet in 2016. “I knew if I wanted to make the next step to better my career and give myself the best chance to achieve my dream of being a professional soccer player, I knew I would have to switch to a high-level club. … I think I fit right in with the program and the ideas of the program.”
With an August 1998 birthdate, McKennie could’ve competed in the ‘98 or ‘99-born age groups, but FCD quickly “played him up” even further, moving him to the ‘97 pool to test him.
“Same Weston that you see today: vivacious and outgoing, made friends, was good with the team, mature in terms of his training, in terms of his habits, and just a real good perspective on what he needed to do to try to improve, even though he was super talented,” recalled FCD academy director Chris Hayden in a conversation with MLSsoccer.com this week.
“As he played in an older team for the next few years, in some ways it was a challenge because he was playing against kids that were older and he couldn't try to solve problems by running by people.”
Hayden could see the intelligence and adaptability that’s enabled McKennie to come to grips with one set of tests after another as he climbed the ladder on both sides of the Atlantic.
“He had to continue to develop some things that I think continue with him now, just figuring things out – how to compete against players that are faster or bigger,” said Hayden. “He adapted really well within our academy during those periods.”
The evolution of the FCD pipeline
McKennie’s maturation coincided with the FC Dallas academy’s rise from pioneering initiative to youth powerhouse and homegrown player factory. He was a key contributor on the teams that won U.S. Soccer Development Academy national championships in 2015 and 2016 and got the call to join the federation’s residency program in Bradenton, Florida.
MLS’s homegrown pathway wasn’t yet built out to its current levels, however, and that complicated FCD’s hopes of keeping their crown jewel. Far fewer teenagers were earning regular MLS minutes compared to what's happening today, and with big European clubs circling with tasty offers of their own, McKennie elected to sign with Bundesliga side Schalke 04 instead.
“We learned a lot in that situation. We didn't have a second team, it's not like we could see a 16, 17-year-old clearly ready to compete with the first team. These are life lessons for us, for all the clubs in MLS that have academies, that are investing in these pathways,” said Gonzalez. “And from that we learned about trying to create the next opportunity for the next player coming through our club.”
In that regard McKennie’s FCD legacy is significant, considering he didn’t turn out for the first team. Another FC Dallas academy product, Chris Richards, plays for the first team of German champions Bayern Munich and right back Reggie Cannon recently moved to Boavista in Portugal.
“We were in the early days when we would go and talk to a top talent at any age group; it was with the idea that we were providing a pathway to pro soccer and a career, but without any real examples,” said Hayden, who considers McKennie’s age cohort “the turning point” for the club’s wider project.
“I would say that's completely flipped today. Most kids in our academy look at college as Plan B – a really good plan B, but Plan B. They're trying to play professionally.”
Even as his European adventure blossoms, taking him to one of the biggest clubs on the planet, a teammate of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Paulo Dybala, McKennie remains a Texas kid at heart. And FCD hope to welcome him home in kind someday.
“He comes and visits us at least twice a year. He comes by, we give him a big, big hug,” said Gonzalez. “This is his family, this is his home, this will always be. Who knows? Maybe one day he can finish his career in FC Dallas, wearing an FC Dallas jersey.
“We love Weston and he will always be a part of the history of this club – and I'm telling you, I'm not kidding. I believe one day he can finish his career here in Dallas.”