The Philadelphia Union has plenty of young talent at their disposal, but none may be more important long-term than centerback Mark McKenzie.
Now in his third season as a pro, McKenzie has returned to the Union starting lineup after U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team duty at the U-20 World Cup paired with nagging injuries saw him make only nine league appearances in 2019. The Bear, Delaware native has started in both of the Union’s matches this season, a 2-0 loss at FC Dallas and a 3-3 draw at LAFC, but has since waited for his chance to get back onto the field with his teammates.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has forced McKenzie and the Union to wait to return to training in Chester, due to the area’s stay-at-home regulations. It may not be the same as being with his teammates, but McKenzie is keeping himself in the best shape he can to be ready for when things get back to normal.
“Right now it’s just a matter of finding different things to do, keeping the body going, keeping the mind going, heading online for workouts,” McKenzie told Philly Influencer. “You see other teams having workouts, so it’s hard not to figure out what I could be working on myself. I’ve been blessed enough to have access to a private field from my old club, so it’s nice to be able to get up there and go to the grass fields and turf fields when they’re available.”
“I’ve been doing on-ball work, pass off benches, and get some shots in. I’ve also been doing some dribbling with two cones on a flat surface. I got a park near my house so some long-distance running there, some hill running as well. I got a medicine ball and equipment I can use to continue to get strong, even though we aren’t at the facilities. At the end of the day, I’ve been aiming to come back better than I was before.”
McKenzie is one of the Union’s many homegrown players reaping the rewards of getting early playing time from head coach Jim Curtin. In 2018, McKenzie made 20 league appearances in his first season while also being nominated for the MLS Rookie of the Year award.
Since that rookie season, McKenzie has been in-and-out of the Union lineup due to a mixture of obstacles. After playing only 12 minutes in April 2019, McKenzie’s next league appearance didn’t come until mid-August, before he rolled off eight appearances over the final two-and-a-half months.
The main reason for his absence in MLS play was his involvement with the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Poland. McKenzie was named captain by then-head coach Tab Ramos and helped the Americans to a third-consecutive quarterfinal finish. An upset win over France was the key highlight for the Americans, a moment McKenzie won’t be forgetting anytime soon.
“It was a unique experience to be able to go there, one that I’m surely humbled to be a part of,” Mckenzie said. “It was also humbling to be named captain, but just to be a part of something that, it takes a lot of hard work and persistence to get there. We had a tight-knit group and everyone knew how to be accountable. A lot of people doubted us, but we were able to make the quarterfinals and knock off one of the best teams along the way.
“It was a long tournament that brought a lot of pressure, but I think we handled it well. Fitness probably pulled up on us as we got later into the tournament after putting so much energy into that France game. Getting to the quarterfinals, we were hungry, but we lacked the cutting edge needed to move on. Overall I think we showed that Americans can play football.”
McKenzie played in three games during the World Cup, battling back from an appendectomy procedure just prior to the start of the tournament. He was one of many young talented defenders on Ramos’ squad, including Bayern Munich’s Chris Richards, Ajax’s Sergino Dest, and PSV’s Chris Gloster.
Returning from international duty, McKenzie was able to earn minutes with the Union’s USL affiliate Bethlehem Steel before jumping back into the first-team fold. His presence in the Union backline helped the Eastern Conference club pick up their first-ever playoff win over rivals New York Red Bulls before eventually losing to Atlanta United in the second round. Now McKenzie is hoping to take his game to a new level in 2020, while helping the Union return to success in league play.
“The goal is to bring the trophy back to Philadelphia,” McKenzie said. “It’s all about getting better and helping the Union be the best team we can be. For my position, I want to be a top defender in MLS and be a defender that opposing strikers don’t want to play against.”
“I’m aiming to be team MVP and help the team bring a trophy back to Philadelphia since we had a good run last year and now it’s time to build on that step. We’ve had chances before to win trophies and didn’t do that so it’s time to make the most of our chances in the future and keep growing as a team.”
Alongside Union teammate Brenden Aaronson, McKenzie was able to make his senior debut with the USMNT in January, playing in a 1-0 friendly win over Costa Rica. With two senior call-ups to his name, the 20-year-old is slowly moving up Gregg Berhalter’s radar as the second-year head coach begins looking at new young talent.
A defender like Berhalter, McKenzie has been able to learn from the head coach and pick his brain about anything from game scenarios to a possible European future.
“It was a surreal moment, I’m not gonna lie, I think kind of blacked out before I got into the game against Costa Rica,” McKenzie said. “I was tuned in, of course, it was a whole flush of emotions, a rush of so many different feelings. As a player, you prepare so long for this opportunity. Once I got into the field, and the whistle blew and I got the ball things kind of came back. I was just like playing again.”
“We have a team chat as well so Gregg is somebody who I’ve had many conversations with, on and off the field. I can pick his brain and try to continue to grow my game. He was a defender like myself, who played for the National Team and in Europe which is what I’d like to do, so it’s good to ask him things and learn from. He’s an incredible resource to have and I’ve learned from him already.”
For now, McKenzie will have to wait for his time to return to Subaru Park, but his growing role on the field should have Union fans excited for what’s to come.