USMNT Rising Star - Mark McKenzie of Philadelphia Union

American defender Mark McKenzie has one Major League Soccer regular season appearance for each of his 19 years. 

It’s not very often a teenage defender will form such a regular part of a senior first team squad, as many head coaches prefer more experienced, weathered players who know their way around the more subtle requirements for being able to deal with an opposition attack.

That McKenzie is trusted, alongside appropriately named centre back partner and compatriot, 20-year-old Auston Trusty, is testament to his ability and that of his team-mate.

The pair were part of an impressive defensive display against standout MLS side New York Red Bulls last season which demonstrated their quality, drawing praise from their coach Jim Curtin.

Later in the season Curtin praised McKenzie further, giving us an idea of what he is all about as a player.

“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," said Curtin.

"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.”

What is also testament to McKenzie's quality is a recent call up to the United States Men’s National team, where he took his place in the squad alongside Trusty, and though neither appeared in the recent game against Panama, they would hope to feature in the upcoming game against Costa Rica in San Jose.

Background

McKenzie hails from Bear, an area of Delaware not far from the Delaware River and beside three other states including Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

He began playing soccer as a youth for Hockessin based side Delaware Rush, and also for the Wilmington Rangers, before catching the eye of the Philadelphia Union and moving to their youth setup.

He went on to play college soccer for Wake Forest Demon Deacons, and has also turned out for Bethlehem Steel as part of his soccer education before signing as a Homegrown Player for the Union at the beginning of 2018.

It has been a quick rise from youth, to college, to senior MLS football for the defender. He was thrust into the first team almost immediately, playing his first full 90 minutes in the eighth game of the 2018 season - just his second appearance - against FC Dallas.

He’s evidently already in the plans of new USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter, and a first cap this month would round off an incredible year of progress for the young defender.

Key Stats

McKenzie’s emergence with Philadelphia Union last season gives us a nice collection of data in order for us to begin to see what type of player he is.

When trying to get a full picture of what a player is like, the data can act as an introduction but also the appendix, or in some cases even give us some of the story itself, but for younger players with fewer minutes it can be difficult to draw conclusions.

McKenzie’s defensive data doesn’t standout, and his per 90 stats of 1.36 aerial duels won, 2.82 clearances, 1.93 interceptions, and 1.91 tackles don’t put him anywhere near the top of the charts for these numbers.

However, his passing accuracy is impressive for a centre back, and the player persona, from Football Whispers (above), shows us that he is regularly involved in build-up passing from the back.

From here we can take a look to see what the scout report says, assessing his passing but also taking a look at the potential for improvement in defensive areas.

Scout Report

McKenzie is a right-footed central defender who has played on either side of the defence but mostly on the right.

Standing at 183 cm he is not the tallest of centre backs, but he possesses attributes in other areas, both physical and technical, to more than make up for this. He also appears tall on the pitch, so maybe this data needs updating!

There are always a good amount of centre backs at the top of the game who don’t break the 190cm mark in terms of their height, and the way the game is played by many of the more modern coaches, height is less of a requirement.

He has a good turn of pace which can help with his recovery defending, combined with a good tackling reach to help win the ball when the attacker looks to already be past him, and this is also useful in attack.

There are moments where he has used this ability to carry the ball past the initial press and step up into more attacking midfield areas.

As with most young defenders there is still a lot to learn in terms of positioning, but he’s probably ahead of his age in this respect but will need to be careful he doesn’t come to rely on his other attributes to make up for positional errors. The best defenders are both quick, and sound positionally.

He has a decent long pass, able to find forwards and wingers along the ground or with lofted balls over the top, and as the stats show he is good enough to play the ball out from the back in a variety of ways, though it will be interesting to see him tested further in this regard to see exactly how good he can be.

International - USMNT

McKenzie has appeared for the United States from U15 level all the way through to U20.

He was part of an the inaugural United States Youth National Team Summit Camp in Lakewood Ranch, Florida in January of last year, before going on to appear at the CONCACAF U20 Championship in November.

He made six appearances and captained the side twice as they won all of the eight games they played in the tournament, lifting the trophy at the end of it thanks to a 2-0 win against Mexico in the final. McKenzie also scored three goals and was named in the tournament’s best XI.

Potential

It’s still early days for McKenzie but he has made a better start to his career than many defenders of his age will, American or otherwise.

The first team football is vital, and is something many of his peers of a similar age in his position in the USMNT pool are not getting.

Playing alongside a more experienced head may be useful for him in the years to come, but games alongside Trusty will benefit both as each learns game by game.

He was one of the players in the running for the league's Rookie of the Year award which indicates that he’s caught the eye of many of his fellow players. He finished third in the running, receiving the second most votes from the media with 22.84 percent. 

McKenzie at least has a bright future in MLS, which in itself is an impressive thing to say about a 19-year-old.

Where he can progress from there will depend on his performances during the next few seasons. Being in a position where he can perform at the highest level is half of the battle, and one which he already appears to have won.


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