By James Nalton Football Whispers
For a player who is only 20 years old, Weston McKennie has already experienced quite a lot.
Born in Little Elm, Texas, and now playing for German Bundesliga side Schalke 04, he is part of the future spine of the United States Men’s National Team, and is one of the more experienced players in the current young crop.
He already has international experience, as well as minutes in the biggest club competition in the world — the Champions League.
Who is Weston McKennie?
It’s a familiar story for some of the United States’ best footballers: a tale of relocation and travelling which allows them to pick up a soccer education they may not have been able to experience had they remained in one town or city in their home nation.
For McKennie this galavanting involved a period living in Kaiserslautern, Germany, from the age of six after his father moved there as part of his job in the military. It was here that he first got into soccer at a very young age, before moving back to the US aged nine.
Two years after returning to the US, McKennie joined the youth ranks of one of Texas' Major League Soccer sides, FC Dallas, and progressed through their youth ranks.
He was one of the outstanding players in his age group, standing out at Dallas just as he was in US youth teams, and attracted the attention of scouts from his former home of Germany where he would eventually return to join Schalke.
As far as German soccer academies go, Schalke is one of the best. The city of Gelsenkirchen is soccer-mad, and is part of the North Rhine-Westphalia area of Germany where a number of the country’s best supported clubs are based.
These including the likes of Schalke, Borussia Dortmund, Borussia Mönchengladbach, FC Köln, Fortuna Düsseldorf and Bayer Leverkusen.
Schalke’s academy has produced, or at least helped to nurture, talented names such as Manuel Neuer, Mesut Özil, Julian Draxler, Benedikt Höwedes, and Leroy Sané.
McKennie has since been joined at the club by compatriots Nicholas Taitague and Haji Wright, and the trio could well link up for the first-team in the not too distant future.
McKennie is already a regular in the Schalke XI, and his stats from these games help us begin to paint a picture of what type of player he is, and has the potential to be.
Judging players based on their stats in a league such as the German Bundesliga is a lot harsher than looking at the data of standout young USMNT hopefuls in MLS.
It could be argued that the German Bundesliga is in the top three leagues in the world, so as a result the players plying their trade there are of a higher quality and it’s more difficult to stand out statistically. This also applies to the Champions League.
So it’s testament to McKennie that he still manages to put up numbers which make him among the best in these competitions in certain areas, mostly based around the defensive side of the game.
He’s second among midfielders in the Champions League this season for aerial duels won per 90 minutes (4.86), and interceptions per 90 (4.05).
These strengths are also evident in the Bundesliga where he is seventh for aerial duels won per 90 with 4.11, and still manages over 2 interceptions per game.
The whole of last season gives us a better sample size, and in 1196 minutes of total game time he averaged 2.03 aerials won, 1,73 interceptions, and 2.7 tackles per 90 minutes played.
The stats give us a picture of a combative midfielder, but what does the more traditional method of scouting tell us? The eye test:
McKennie is a mobile, right-footed number eight in the modern mould, able to get between the boxes with ease, winning balls to help both the defence and the attack.
His strengths mean he works best as a ball-winning defensive midfielder in a midfield two or four, or as shuttler on the side of a three. His energy and aerial ability at 185cm tall also suggest that he could act as a lone shield in front of the back four in a three, and some of these attributes could also help the attack should he find himself in those areas.
This season he has already played three or four positions through the centre of the park, from a game in the centre of defence earlier in the season, to appearances as far forward as more attacking midfield positions. McKennie is always looking forward, regardless of how high up the pitch he’s playing.
The accuracy of his passing needs some work, and his completion rate in the league and Champions League this season so far is just 66 percent. Last season this wasn’t much better, at 73 percent, but dipping back into the data, his low accuracy may be explained by the type of passes he tries.
As shown in the image above, the majority of his passes are played forward through the middle of the pitch where there is more traffic.
This is high risk but high reward play, and maybe the low accuracy isn’t as much of a problem as first thought.
Overall there is plenty of versatility and plenty of raw ability to work with, alongside a good reading of the game for a young player.
International - USA
McKennie scored his only international goal to date on his debut for the USMNT against Portugal in November 2017, just over a month after the side had failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
He is part of a potentially bright future, and a rebuild which needed to start when he made his debut, but will now start in 2019 due to the failure to appoint a new coach after Bruce Arena’s departure.
Having come through the youth teams, including appearances at U17, U18, and U20 level, he should be a fixture in the side under the new coach going into qualification for future tournaments.
There is captain potential there, and as he sat watching the 2017 USMNT side lose to Trinidad and Tobago, dashing the World Cup dreams of not only those playing, but of McKennie himself who thought he would have been good enough to make the squad in Russia, he will be determined to make sure that this type of failure doesn’t happen again as long as he’s in the side.
You wouldn’t bet against McKennie getting more goals as he ages, and he learns when to make runs into the box from his midfield position.
His heading ability is a weapon at set pieces and in open play as he looks to get on the end of crosses from the full-backs, and this should also help him add to his goal tally.
His passing, long and short, is usually always the right idea, and the technique and delivery will come along with it as he improves. If he can improve his dribbling ability in midfield, then even better.
In the long-term McKennie should be a mainstay in the USMNT, and he should even be considered as an option at centre back in some games, especially those which take place in the CONCACAF region beginning in 2019.
This would be an ideal stage on which to bed him in as part of the future of the national team along with the likes of Tyler Adams and John Durkin.
At club level there is no reason for him to look beyond Schalke. Even though they haven’t had the best starts to the new season, they are one of the best clubs in Germany for a young player to play for, especially under Domenico Tedesco, and McKennie needs to become one of the standout performers there. If he does, bigger clubs will come calling.
If they do, and if he progresses as hoped, he would be ideally suited to the English Premier League or one of the bigger clubs in France, maybe even Paris Saint-Germain, where fellow USMNT player Timothy Weah plays.
Big things can be expected of McKennie at club and international level, and he looks set to play at the top level of the game for many years to come.