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Player Spotlight

With both the Union and U.S. U-20 team, opportunity awaits for McKenzie

In the midst of a breakot season, Philadelphia Union central defender Mark McKenzie is expected to be a leader of the current U.S. U-20 team, which will begin World Cup qualifying next week. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
October 23, 2018
8:00 AM
THE UNITED STATES U-20 World Cup qualifying team has been named by head coach Tab Ramos and for a majority of the players, it will be their sole focus. For Mark McKenzie, however, November will see him divide his time between being a starter in the MLS playoffs and with the U.S. U-20 team.

McKenzie, 19, is one of the most promising stories in MLS regarding the development of young American players. Over the course of the season, the Delaware native has emerged as a frequent starter for the Philadelphia Union where he has played over 1500 league minutes and over 1800 minutes across all competitions, so far.

But numbers only tell part of the story. Together with Auston Trusty, Philadelphia has utilized a very young American central defense tandem to help the club exceed all expectations this year. The team has already clinched a spot in the playoffs and on Sunday against New York City, it will attempt to secure home field advantage for the first-round knockout game.

Between U-20 World Cup qualifying, where he is seen as one of his team’s best players, and the postseason for Philadelphia, McKenzie has a lot on his plate – but is handling it all by simply focusing on the game at hand.

“I am not prioritizing,” McKenzie told ASN. “I am with my club at the moment so my focus is helping my club in any way I can. The U-20 tournament is still over a week away so I am just focused on the Union and going as far as we can in the playoffs. When the national team comes, I'll be ready. But I am trying not to look to far ahead and stay focused on the task at hand.”

While the Union has his undivided attention, it does not mean that McKenzie does not have his thoughts about how the U-20 team could do in this tournament. At a recent camp in Florida, McKenzie was selected by Ramos to wear the captain’s armband and he has been a part of the team this year whenever his club requirements don’t conflict.

For the first time ever, the United States will participate at the CONCACAF U-20 Championships as the defending champion after winning it for the first time in 2017. But this tournament presents its own challenges, given that the first stage has a grueling schedule with five games being played every other day from November 1-9. At this time, it is unclear when McKenzie will join the U.S. team.

As a result, every player on the roster must be prepared to start multiple times and, with the team needing to finish first, one bad result could cost them a spot at the World Cup.

“It'll be a new experience playing that many games in that short a period of time,” McKenzie explained. “Ultimately, everybody is going to have to be ready whenever their name is called. Unfortunately, injuries play a part in the game and fatigue will set in as the games go on. You have to make sure you are taking good care of yourself on and off the field and well as staying sharp mentally so you can handle your responsibilities.

“I see a lot of potential in this group,” he added. “We have guys coming from all over, guys with great experience. We have players based in Europe and guys based in MLS. It's a great mix. We had a great showing in March in Europe which is a nice preview of what's to come. When the guys are together and firing on full cylinders, I have full confidence in the team. We can make a push but we have to take it one game at a time.”

McKenzie’s success this year has earned impressive praise from coaching staff and veteran players. Former U.S. World Cup midfielder Maurice Edu played with McKenzie last year during a rehab stint with the Union’s USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel. In McKenzie, he saw a player that had a wide range of tools.

"I first saw Mark play a few years back with the Steel and was impressed by his athleticism and physical tools and then saw he could play as well," Edu said. "I knew he’d make it to the first team and I’m impressed with, first, how quickly he’s made that transition and, second, how well he’s done at that level. He’s a level headed kid with a lot of personality and very eager to learn and get better. Very coachable and very respected amongst his peers. Comes as no surprise to me that he’d be U-20 captain [last camp]. On the pitch he’s vocal from the back and leads with his play. He’s a good young pro and carries himself well. I think he’s made great progress through the Union’s system and I’m excited to see his continued growth and development."

Union head coach Jim Curtin agrees

“His ability to not just dominate physically whether it is in the air, in duels, or in 1v1’s — but also how good he [is] with the ball,” Curtin said after a game in July. “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.”

One of the big areas where McKenzie has worked hard this year has been in watching video of himself to breakdown specific areas of where he can improve – something which he had never done extensively in his past.

The results of film have made him focused and determined to become a central defender that fits into the modern style of the game. While he has a big physical build to help him on the defensive side, he has developed his game to become more comfortable on the ball to the point where he can be part of the first wave of attack.

“On the field, I am getting more comfortable carrying the ball into the midfield,” McKenzie said. “It's unknown territory leaving your position. The last thing I want to do is leave my team in jeopardy. But the more minutes you play and the more you work on it in practice, you're able to carry the ball into the midfield and draw midfielders and play the ball while not overcomplicating it.”

“Occasionally there will be times in the game where you can play a long diagonal, and I always work on that too,” he continued. “I like to initiate the attack from the back, which is a big part of the game these days - being the first wave of the attack. The more you can eliminate players from the other side, the easier it can make it for your forwards and midfielders.”

Should the U.S U-20 team succeed again this cycle, it will mark the latest time Ramos has been able to build a solid U-20 team with Philadelphia Union players playing a role. The 2017 World Cup team featured Auston Trusty and Derrick Jones. The current team for qualifying has not only McKenzie but also Union homegrown signees Matt Real and Anthony Fontana on it.

The pipeline between the Union and U.S. youth national teams is very strong at the moment and it is not something that is lost on the club’s players.

“It's a testament to the club and its investment in youth,” McKenzie said. “They are developing players that can ultimately move to the first team. Everybody progresses at different stages and the organization recognizes that. They are putting together plans for everyone to be their best. We have a handful of guys who have youth national team experience but it all starts here with the club and their role in investing and taking the time to grooming us.”

As Jim Curtin and Maurice Edu have noted, McKenzie is one with a bright future and if the U.S. U-20 team qualifies for the World Cup and the Union impress in the playoffs, 2019 will provide even more opportunities for the Bronx-born, Delaware-raised product.

“Coming in was matter of me putting my head down and putting in the work to prove to the group, and myself, that I belonged here,” McKenzie said of the start to his career with Philadelphia. “I was blessed enough to come back to the club and I'm thankful for the club for taking a chance on me.

“It's my first time being in a professional setup for this level,” he concluded. “I have confidence in my ability. I understand I have areas where I need to grow, but as long as I put the work in, I think I can go as far as I can.”

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