McKenzie ready to make the jump from prospect to core player in 2020
March 06, 2020
LOOKING BACK at the two most recent seasons in MLS, there has been an increase in the minutes given to young domestic players. Among the top players of that contingent, has been Philadelphia Union central defender Mark McKenzie who has also seen his performances translate into the international stage where he was the 2019 U-20 World Cup captain and earned his first cap with the senior team last month.
While he only celebrated his 21st birthday last week and he remains a young player, especially for his position, he is quick to point out that there are now added expectations and responsibilities placed upon him and that this is a year for him to move from the prospect label and into a more experienced role.
“This year is going to be one where I definitely have to raise my level of play,” McKenzie told ASN. “I have a lot of expectations with Philly and us building on what we did last year - setting a club record for points, holding first place for a long time, hosting a playoff game. Now it's up to us finding a way where we can bring a trophy back to Philadelphia. Ultimately, I am a small piece in a big picture but with this being year three for me, I think I am going to be more of vocal leader although I am only 21 and I am always trying to get better.”
The bar for McKenzie is actually quite high right now. He has already amassed over 2500 minutes with the Philadelphia Union and has played in the playoffs each of his first two seasons. Last year he started in the club’s first ever playoff win – an extra time win over the New York Red Bulls.
But it wasn’t always smooth either. Shortly before the U-20 World Cup, McKenzie had to undergo an emergency appendectomy. Despite being the team’s captain, he was limited to just one game as a result of the surgery. Then when he returned to Philadelphia, playtime was not easy to come by. It wasn’t until towards the end of the season in late August when he earned his starting position back.
Coming into this season, McKenzie is set to play a big role for Philadelphia as Auston Trusty was traded to Colorado – giving more room for McKenzie to play. But McKenzie is not taking his starting job for granted and insists that the time fighting for minutes in 2019 helped grow and gave him a better perspective on first-team soccer.
“It's part of the game,” McKenzie explained. “The minutes, it's about really digging deep and taking the highs with the lows. You have to be able to withstand the adversity. I had that spell last year where now I was out of the picture. I had to fight my way back. That added pressure and I had to raise my game. Those were lessons I learned on and off the field heading into this season. It was really beneficial, although that is tough to say when you're in the situation. I look back on it now and I appreciate the journey that much more. I really have to continue to grow and not become too complacent, not being that leader.”
After a tough 2-0 opening loss to FC Dallas last weekend, the schedule will again be difficult for Philadelphia as the team is currently California preparing to face LAFC on Sunday night at Banc of California stadium.
But following this game, Mckenzie is widely expected to join the United States U-23 team for the remainder of the month. On March 20, that team will kick off its Olympic qualifying tournament. That is a priority for players of his generation to lead the U.S. team to its first Olympic berth since 2008. According McKenzie, he says “these tournaments are defining” and the opportunity should be there for him to play an important role as one of the team’s starting central defenders.
“It's something that is always in the back of your mind,” McKenzie said. “And playing well will present you with opportunities to play with the national team. I've been with the U-23s for a number of camps and I think we have a really good group. I am confident heading into qualifying. We have a lot of options at every position. I think that is a nice problem to have for Jason. I am confident in what we can do. It is going to be really exciting.”
McKenzie has a lot on his plate right now with Philadelphia being his present and the U.S. U-23 team being his short-term future, there is also the full national team. At the start of 2020, McKenzie was named to the roster to the national team’s January camp and he made his debut as a 62nd minute substitute in a 1-0 win over Costa Rica.
It was just 28 minutes for McKenzie but it left him both confident for the season and hungry to return to that stage.
“I was blessed to be able to say I represented my country at the senior team level. It was special to have the opportunity to put on the jersey and I am hopeful there will be many more. It was a good month and a long month of a lot of work, a lot of principles and concepts of the way we want to play so when it came down to play Costa Rica, we can put those principles into effect. Of course the game isn't always going to go the way you intended it but when you have the foundation, it makes everything a little easier when you step onto the field - you know your role, you know what you need to do in situations. We had a lot of players getting first caps so it gave me a lot of confidence coming into the season.”