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BREAKING NEWS: Liverpool and Dortmund have reached an agreement over the transfer of Reus. They've agreed it's never going to happen. [emoji23]

It reminds me the day when we signed Hector and Djilobodji on the same day.

What the fuck? After being one of the best midfielders in the Bundesliga this year, I honestly think he should have a say in his future. I'm pretty sure he would be happy either returning to Chelsea o

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1 hour ago, Blues Forever said:

 

He turns 24 next season, so it isn't like big English clubs have not had a chance to evaluate and sign him.

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Man Utd dealt transfer blow as Edinson Cavani 'makes shock decision' over his future

Edinson Cavani is set to leave Manchester United in the summer transfer window according to a report from South America

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On 03/03/2021 at 14:57, Blues Forever said:

 

Challenge accepted: the story of Weston McKennie

https://theathletic.com/2435501/2021/03/09/challenge-accepted-the-story-of-weston-mckennie/

Challenge accepted: the story of Weston McKennie – The Athletic

In the front seat of her pearl white Buick Lacrosse, on the way to her son’s youth soccer games, Tina McKennie would occasionally push the button. The one she knew would get a reaction. 

“They say that kid is better than you,” she would offer up, like a can of spinach to Popeye.

“Oh yeah?” Weston McKennie would reply. “We’ll see.”

The pre-teen midfielder would spend the next 90 minutes making sure no one on the field or in the stands could make that claim again.

The youngest McKennie child has always been outgoing and boisterous. He shadowed his older brother, John, constantly trying to keep up with the bigger kids. It solidified two hallmarks of his personality: an overwhelming competitiveness and an incredibly talkative nature.

“He could make friends with a turtle,” Tina likes to say.

McKennie is like that still. He’s a jokester, he likes to keep the mood light in the locker room and he’s always approachable. To take McKennie at face value, though, to never look past the gregariousness he projects, would be to miss the characteristics that have led to such a rapid rise in European football and with the U.S. national team. There is a seriousness to how McKennie has always approached the sport, fueled by the same instinct Tina would prod on the car rides to youth matches.

“When Weston gets challenged,” Tina says, “you see who he is as a player.”

It’s a dichotomy that has started to show itself with the U.S. team, where McKennie is emerging within the young squad as a leader.

For the first time ever, the U.S. will go into World Cup qualifying with a litany of names familiar to the global soccer community: Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Sergino Dest, Gio Reyna. Among this group of young Americans rapidly achieving historic new heights in the game, McKennie has emerged as the player who might be the most important to the team. 

But he wasn’t supposed to be the guy. Cut from the U.S. Under-17 World Cup team just six years ago, he vowed to take the route that challenged him the most and has now made himself into a key player for a historic European powerhouse.

In the middle of the arrival of American soccer’s golden generation — or the start of a new normal, depending on your level of optimism — is a player whose biggest strength is his ability to turn a challenge, or doubters, into motivation. 

His latest success at Juventus is only the most recent example of that ability.

“I’m sure everyone besides my close, close friends probably doubted that I would be as successful as I have been so far here,” McKennie says. “Or that I would even get minutes or start at one point or become important for the team. And that right there, it was something, in all honesty, I questioned myself about also. But at the end of the day I knew it was going to be a challenge and, like I’ve always said, I’m very competitive and like challenges and I was prepared to face it, and so I went in headfirst and did what I had to do to become a contributor to the team and become an important piece for the team as well.”


McKennie was born at Ft. Lewis in Washington, then moved to Ft. Lee in Virginia as a toddler before his family faced a decision. His father, John McKennie, who was in the U.S. Army, had a choice to be stationed in Alaska or in Germany. Tina said she doesn’t do well in the cold, so Germany was the choice. The family moved into the last house John looked at when house-hunting near the army base in Kaiserslautern. It was across the street from a gymnasium, and on their first day in their new home, the boys were sent outside to play. They headed across the street, where Weston, then five years old, stumbled upon a kickaround.

McKennie wound up joining a club team in Germany. He has vivid memories of his first training session. He was young enough that the session included a game of duck-duck-goose. His mom, not sure what was appropriate attire for the day, sent him to play in a pair of khaki shorts.

By the time he returned to Dallas three and a half years later, he had fallen in love with the game. But a return to the States also meant a pull to the sport his older brother played: American football. And Weston thrived on the gridiron, too.

A YouTube highlight reel shows McKennie wearing a No 10 University of Miami jersey, spinning, juking and sprinting past helpless would-be tacklers nipping at his ankles. It wasn’t until he joined the FC Dallas academy in middle school that he had a conversation with his mother and opted to give up American football and commit to soccer.

Screen-Shot-2021-03-08-at-19.38.02.png
 
(Photo: Miami Hurricanes, University of Miami)

“I said, ‘Wes, how much do you like soccer and how much do you like football?” Tina McKennie recalls. “He said, ‘I like soccer 99.9 per cent and I like football 99.8 per cent.’ I said, ‘Well then, you’ve made your decision.’”

For the record, McKennie thinks he could’ve made it in either sport.

“Whatever I do I put 100 per cent into it,” he tells The Athletic. “So my body shape now is because I put everything I have into soccer, but if I put everything I had into football I might be another 20 pounds of muscle and stock here, and then, you know, bulkier. And if I played basketball, like, I would have been more agile, more handles and stuff like that. Whatever you put me in, the competitive mindset would have taken over.”

McKennie’s choice to stay in soccer was a good one. At FC Dallas, he often played up two age groups. He wasn’t an especially big kid, but he was technically and tactically ahead of the others in his age group.

“You always see a lot of early developers in this business,” FC Dallas academy coach Francisco Molina says. “But there was something different about him.”

As a 13-year-old, McKennie received his first invitation to a youth national team camp. There, on one of four buses transporting 80 kids in the identification camp, he met another small kid sitting a row in front of him. McKennie started squirting the last drops from his water bottle into the kid’s ear. Later, they ran up eight flights of stairs together because McKennie was afraid of elevators. At the top of the staircase, McKennie and Christian Pulisic tossed pieces of chewed-up gum at the palm tree below. McKennie’s stuck. For the next couple of camps, each time they returned to the hotel, they’d climb the stairs and look to see if the gum was still there. After two camps and six months, the gum remained. The friendship between the two has now stuck for nearly a decade.

Pulisic, McKennie
 
(Photo: John Dorton/ISI Photos)

“It’s pretty crazy if you look at it,” McKennie says. “Two kids that would never have thought we would end up in Germany being the biggest rivals, being on the national team later on together.”

McKennie would go on to receive an invitation to join U.S. Under-17 national team residency at Bradenton, a (now closed) full-time academy for the country’s top players that was run by U.S. Soccer. McKennie featured for that team, playing in friendlies and getting to bond with his future U.S. team-mates, including Pulisic and Tyler Adams. But it was there that he had his first major setback. 

As he would with Schalke, and now with Juventus, McKennie played a number of different positions for the U.S. But as the team neared the 2015 Under-17 World Cup, McKennie was falling out of favor with the coaching staff. He recalled a training session late in that cycle when, training off to the side from the top group, a coach essentially told him he would not be invited back to Bradenton for the next semester. The harshness of that moment deflated him. McKennie was left off the World Cup roster. Some believe his willingness to play multiple positions ultimately kept him from standing out at one spot.

“When we were at residency and very young, his talent has always been there, that was a no-brainer,” Adams recalls. “But he was undervalued because he was the type of guy where the team could rely on him to perform in any position. And I think that, for him, he missed out on a lot of opportunities, because he was that guy that would say, ‘I can play forward, I can play center-back, I can play right-back, I can play left-back.’ Because he knew that he had the confidence in himself to do that. But also he made everyone else believe, ‘Oh, maybe Weston can play center-back.’ He was just that guy.”

Missing the World Cup obviously had a huge impact on McKennie.

“It broke me down quite a bit,” he says.

He returned to FC Dallas, a needed move to restore his confidence. McKennie began playing regularly again, starting all 20 games and scoring 10 goals. He was named the U.S. Soccer Development Academy Central Division player of the year as FC Dallas won the 2015-16 national championship.

McKennie, Dallas
 
McKennie, left of centre, celebrates with his FC Dallas team-mates in 2015 after winning the U-16 US Soccer Development Academy Championship. The following year they won the national academy championship too (Photo: Michael Janosz/ISI Photos)

His performances brought him back into the U.S. Under-19 and Under-20 national team pool and caught the eye of European scouts. In the summer of 2016, McKennie went to train with Schalke. His exposure to the Bundesliga opened up options for the next step. But it was not an easy decision within the McKennie family. 

There were three options: accept a full-ride scholarship to the University of Virginia, sign with Schalke or take a homegrown contract with FC Dallas. McKennie wanted to sign in Germany. He had his mother’s support, but he had to convince his father.

“I was the only one who was opposed to it,” John McKennie says. “I looked at it from the standpoint that you have a full-ride scholarship that was guaranteed… That was big for him to secure his future. We had a few heavy conversations about that. I just realized, John, this is not your decision, this is Weston’s decision. You just have to support him.” 

In an airport lounge with his mother and agent, former U.S. national team defender Cory Gibbs, McKennie made the final decision. He was signing with Schalke and returning to the country where he was first introduced to the sport. He inked his first contract with Schalke in August 2016.


The competitiveness that has always lifted McKennie is buttressed by an ability to sniff out what might be missing in his team and fill those gaps.

On the field that has, at times, worked against McKennie. Just as he had been in Bradenton, McKennie was a jack of all trades at Schalke. He was almost immediately a standout, but seemingly was never able to get consistent games in central midfield as a result of his versatility.

McKennie’s ability to diagnose the culture of any team he walks into has also been a critical part of his success, though. At FC Dallas, even when he played up two age groups in the academy, Molina, his FCD coach, says McKennie quickly recognized and then filled a leadership vacuum.  At Schalke, where the club’s identity is built so much around the coal-mining history of its region that the tunnel from the dressing rooms to the pitch in its home stadium is designed to look like a mine shaft, McKennie recognized how he needed to play to embody that identity.

Weston McKennie, Schalke
 
(Photo: TF-Images/Getty Images)

“My work ethic definitely elevated while I was there because I wasn’t the best technically, wasn’t the best tactically, so I had to find a way to stand out,” McKennie says. “And that was how I kind of developed that sense of identity, someone who goes into the tackles and works his ass off. Sometimes you have your own personal goals and motivations … (but) you have to look at the bigger picture.”

McKennie became a fan favorite at Schalke because of his consistency and commitment to running and tackling, working hard even as things turned sour for the club. In his final season in the Bundesliga (2019-20), McKennie was in the 85th percentile for midfielders in interceptions per game and in the 96th percentile for aerials won, according to StatsBomb data on fbref.com. 

The graphic below using smarterscout data shows his output in that final season at Schalke. Smarterscout is a site that gives players a rating from 0-99, relating to either how often a player does a given stylistic action compared with others playing in his position (such as shooting volume, or the volume of tackles they make), or how effective they are (such as measuring how well they progress the ball upfield). McKennie’s scores show how he was something of an all-rounder in most areas of his game. 50/99 here represents the average, with McKennie close to that when it comes to progressing the ball upfield, his impact as a defender, disrupting opposition moves and retaining possession.

pizza_weston_mckennie_multiple-positions

Eventually, with Schalke in need of revenue in 2020, they agreed to loan McKennie to Juventus for $5.3 million (£3.9 million) with a $22 million (£15.9 million) purchase option that included another $7.7 million (£5.58 million) in performance increases. Juventus triggered that option last week.

People doubted that McKennie would be able to break into the team at such a massive club, but it didn’t take long for him to assimilate and start to make an impact. McKennie may be the club’s first American player but he found it easy to fit in. He spent the first few days acclimatising to expectations and, essentially, the level of tolerance for his boisterousness. Then he opened up, putting his personality and character on display. His team-mates at Schalke joked that he’d be silent in the Juventus locker room, awed by the big-name team-mates. That version of McKennie might not exist. In his first week at Juve, the club’s in-house camera crew caught him joking about his body before a training session with Cristiano Ronaldo. Out of place? Hardly. Silent? Definitely not.

“My personality doesn’t allow me to be like that,” McKennie says with a laugh. “I could never just, like, be quiet.”

He calls it his “if I’m in the room, you know I’m in the room” personality.

It’s a confidence that hints more at his mentality. McKennie believes he belongs, no matter where he is. This has allowed him to transition quickly into the highest levels of the sport. McKennie has carried that confidence onto the field, shocking observers during his first year in Serie A, not just with the qualities that were on display at Schalke, but with how active he has been in the attacking end of the field. The graphic below shows how the location of his touches has changed from his final season at Schalke to his first at Juventus. Just look at how many fewer touches he is taking in his own half…

241519_position_comp_stats_perform_dark-

The running, pressing and tackling never went away, but McKennie’s passing and ability to arrive in the box — that impeccable sense of timing — has been vital to his success at Juventus. There is no better example than his goal against Barcelona in the Champions League back in December, where McKennie engineered an attack and then finished it with a well-timed run and scissor-kick finish.

At Juventus, McKennie’s become far more offensive-minded. He gets into the box more, shoots more and progresses the ball upfield more than he did at Schalke. In possession he’s making fewer progressive passes — those that move the team ten metres or more upfield — with his passing safer and looking to link play. Defensively he’s become more of a destroyer, tackling, fouling and clearing more often than last season at Schalke and going up for more aerial duels too. He’s become more of an attacking outlet without losing the defensive side of their game.

pizza_weston_mckennie_multiple-positions

“I know that I can be better than the players that I go up against,” McKennie says. “Because it’s very hard to find a player that has a strong mentality and a strong work rate, and that relentlessness of not letting yourself be beat.

“I always look at myself and say, ‘How can I be better, how can I contribute more to my team than that guy?’ There’ll be more times, obviously, in the season that I’ll face tough opponents in the midfield, when we play Inter Milan or AC Milan or going up against (Arturo) Vidal, for instance. That’s something that I look forward to.”

positions_weston_mckennie_2020-21.png

While McKennie’s success has surprised some, it is not a shock for those closest to him. They knew the motivations at Juventus wouldn’t be all that different from the ones in his mother’s car all those years ago.

“People felt from the outside that a massive superclub might’ve been too big for him,” says Gibbs, McKennie’s agent, who had 19 caps with the USMNT. “Me knowing him since he was a teenager, his mentality is just like no other. I’ve always known Wes to be someone to want to conquer any challenge, whether it’s playing with Ronaldo, the best in the world, playing in a superclub.

McKennie, Juventus
 
(Photo: Daniele Badolato – Juventus FC/Juventus FC via Getty Images)

“There was never a doubt he’d play up to the level, we knew he’d succeed and play above it.”

McKennie said he hopes he’s convinced some who wondered if Juventus was too big a step for him.

“For them to exercise the loan before the year was up is a pretty good sign in my eyes,” he says. “I was definitely very happy about that and for all the people who have doubted me, I’m sure if they’ve doubted me they probably have followed (my season) at some point. I’m sure they hopefully have changed their minds about the whole situation.”

McKennie’s growth with Juventus has big implications for a U.S. team that is attempting to get back to the World Cup. The U.S. will start the qualifying gauntlet in the fall, and McKennie is expected to be one of the team’s most important players, both with his on-field contributions and his locker-room presence.

The U.S. team that failed to qualify for the World Cup in 2018 was made up mostly of veterans in their final years of international soccer. That group has been replaced by a core of young players under the age of 23: McKennie, Pulisic, Adams, Reyna, Dest, Werder Bremen’s Josh Sargent, Lille’s Tim Weah, Bayern Munich’s Chris Richards, Fulham’s Antonee Robinson and potentially England youth international Yunus Musah. Other up-and-comers are starting to break out in Europe, as well: RB Salzburg’s Brenden Aaronson, Barcelona’s Konrad de la Fuente, Schalke’s Matthew Hoppe, Caen’s Nicholas Gioacchini, Norwich’s Sebastian Soto, Wolves’ Owen Otasowie, Roma’s Bryan Reynolds, Boavista’s Reggie Cannon and Orlando City’s Daryl Dike, now on loan at Barnsley. 

USMNTJD11141844.jpg
 
Pulisic, McKennie and Adams at Wembley for the friendly against England in 2018 (Photo: John Dorton/ISI Photos)

With so many young players in the squad, McKennie has stepped up to fill the leadership vacuum.

“From an early age he’s always had that,” says John McKennie. “He’s always wanted the responsibility. That’s how it’s played out.”

After a scoreless friendly between the U.S. and Wales in December, McKennie entered the press conference in a joking mood, his charm disarming the Zoom call full of reporters. Minutes later, though, he expressed disappointment in some aspects of the performance, announcing publicly what he said he told the team earlier in the locker room: the U.S. has players with quality, but on this night it also had a group of players that didn’t make the runs that were best for the team. 

The criticism landed just right. It shook reality into a young team that is still very much searching for a leader.

“It’s always funny to talk about Weston because off the field his personality is big, he’s a fun guy, a magnetic personality, everyone loves him,” says U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter. “He brings a real energy to the team. I think what he did in the (November) camp, in particular, was he flipped the switch when the game time came, and that was really interesting for me to see because he’s so relaxed and jovial around the training days and around the camp, and then when the game came you can tell it was a different Weston. And I like to see that.”

After four long years, the U.S. now faces its most important period since missing the World Cup with a loss to Trinidad in November 2017. Qualifiers will begin this fall and McKennie will be counted on in central midfield.

His goal is to prove through the team’s success what he’s proved with his individual accomplishments at Juventus. To make the U.S. men’s national team an embodiment of his own personality, ready to run and work and fight for everything, but all in the name of showing you belong on the biggest stages with the traditional powers.

“Americans, we’re known for our work rate, we’re known for our drive, our relentlessness on the field,” McKennie says. “I think what this new group has to offer is we’re not only that.”

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