Sports

The U.S. Men’s Soccer Star Who Broke COVID Rules Is on Fire at the Perfect Time

America will rely on him Friday in its big World Cup qualifying match against Mexico.

McKennie running and pointing with his left arm and hand stretched out leftward, with his mouth open
Weston McKennie during the Serie A match between his team Juventus FC and ACF Fiorentina at Allianz Stadium on Nov. 6, in Turin, Italy. Chris Ricco/Getty Images

This is the one that really matters. Though the U.S. men’s national soccer team is coming off two straight summer tournament wins over Mexico in the CONCACAF Nations League and the Gold Cup, the Americans would happily trade one or maybe even both of those for a win Friday in World Cup qualifying, where their archrivals lead them in the standings by 3 points but significantly more in good vibes.

It won’t be easy. As in October, the top end of the U.S. roster is ailing. Christian Pulisic is back with the team, yes, but at what percentage remains to be seen. Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel took the unusual step of asking the USMNT to be careful in how it used Pulisic during the upcoming window after he returned to his Premier League club injured following the U.S. team’s September qualifiers; the star midfielder is only just now beginning to take the field again. U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter’s nodding acceptance of Tuchel’s concerns could be read as an acknowledgement that Pulisic’s playing time is best limited for the November games.

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So, against Mexico, America will have a little bit of Pulisic, maybe. Still no Gio Reyna though; his target recovery date from an injury suffered with the U.S. in September recedes further into the distance every time he approaches it. And now Sergiño Dest, hero of the win over Costa Rica in October, is out too with a tweaked back. The list of potential U.S. danger men for the biggest game of this or any other qualifying cycle is dwindling. If the team is to beat Mexico in a World Cup qualifier for the first time in more than eight years, someone’s going to have to play the hero.

The poetic choice would be Ricardo Pepi, the 18-year-old Mexican American phenom who’s been open about how close he feels to his family’s native country and his own fandom of the Mexican national team, even as he elected to play for the United States. If he scores Friday, expect an equal and opposite emotional explosion from the two fanbases, and a whole lot of cutaways to any family members of his who happen to be in the stands.

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But the more likely match winner, should there be one for the U.S., is the player who has done it before. The Mexican players presumably understand the narrative; they’ll be keyed in on Pepi. But they might not have an answer for another American cornerstone, one who led a resilient USMNT to its comeback win over Mexico in June, one whose form has been rising at the perfect time.

It’s been a white-knuckle season for 23-year-old U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie. His club team, Italian powerhouse and big-time Super League booster Juventus, changed coaches over the summer, and for much of the transfer window seemed set to sell him to someone in the Premier League for a quick infusion of cash. A challenge, but not a particularly unique one in this line of work.

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It got worse, and the nadir, when it came, was self-inflicted. In September, after a ho-hum performance in the USMNT’s opening draw against El Salvador, McKennie was suspended from the team and sent home from camp for violating team COVID protocols, reportedly by both leaving the team’s hotel COVID bubble and by bringing someone to his room in said bubble. He was excoriated and apologized, but seemed unable to shake the cloud of apprehension upon his return to Juventus. He put in nearly a month of aimless, unsatisfactory performances. He told the Athletic that the aftermath of his suspension “really messed up my confidence completely.”

It was strange for fans to see McKennie twisting in his own negative headspace. His combination of raw charisma and a knack for making clutch plays made him the closest thing the USMNT had to a Friday Night Lights character, one who seemed personable and carefree. His indiscretion in September hardly hampers the comparison, even if his coaches would prefer he do less to provoke that sort of drama in the future. It was undoubtedly a big mistake and his suspension was deserved, but the sharp reaction in its immediate aftermath now appears a bit harsh for what was, at heart, a seemingly extroverted young adult chafing against pandemic restrictions. There are worse kinds of trouble for a young athlete to be in. (More concerning is the pattern. McKennie had already been suspended by Juventus in April after breaking Italian COVID rules by hosting a party at his home. There won’t be many more additional chances.)

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The USMNT welcomed him back in October, and since appearing twice for his country that month, McKennie’s form has turned upward again. He scored in two consecutive games for Juventus in league play, played four key passes that led to shots against Zenit St. Petersburg in the Champions League, dribbled past his opponents five times against Fiorentina in Serie A. He once again looks like the do-it-all midfielder who exceeded all expectations in his first season in Italy.

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When then–Juventus manager Andrea Pirlo recruited McKennie in the summer of 2020 from Germany’s Schalke 04, the assumption was that Pirlo felt his squad needed a runner, someone who could be everywhere, covering and winning the ball back for Juventus’ arsenal of midfield ball progressors. If there’s anyone who understands the value this role can provide, it’s Pirlo, whose unruffled passing brilliance was made possible at AC Milan and for Italy by the hard-charging belligerence of his henchman Gennaro Gattuso. A player like Gattuso fills in the cracks in a formation, showing up wherever he needs to be to cover for his teammates.

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But McKennie did more than that. His performances last year overflowed the cracks he was meant to patch. Even while his work rate and defense impressed, he scored goals and created chances for teammates at a much higher rate than anyone would have expected. His statistical profile may not yet be that of one of the world’s great midfielders, but it’s an incredibly broad foundation on which one might be built. He did this against Barcelona, for Lionel Messi’s sake:

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McKennie didn’t have to be quite so flamboyant to beat Mexico in June. If he’s playing well, he can do just about anything on a soccer field, but his most important contribution against Mexico that game was his ability to posterize Mexican defenders on set pieces. The U.S. scored twice off well-won headers of his, with McKennie setting up Reyna for an easy goal first before scoring the second himself. If Mexico comes to fear every corner kick the U.S. takes with McKennie (and Miles Robinson and Pepi) for the next decade, that would be a pretty good outcome for U.S. fans.

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But to do that, he’ll need help. It doesn’t matter how many defenders McKennie outjumps if the pass never finds him. You can’t have the oop without the alley. Pulisic’s service was generally good that day in June, but it can be inconsistent. Fellow midfielder Kellyn Acosta is hit or miss. Only Reyna regularly takes set pieces for his club, and since his injury, the team has struggled to produce much threat from corners and free kicks.

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That could change against Mexico Friday, depending on the lineup Berhalter elects to use. This time he does have a set piece specialist available: 19-year-old Gianluca Busio, who has been a regular taker of them since before he could get into R-rated movies, first for MLS’s Sporting Kansas City and now for the Serie A’s Venezia FC. But starting Busio would probably mean removing Yunus Musah, one of the best American performers in the October win against Costa Rica. Busio has played better than Musah over the past month for his club—and has looked much improved as a defensive presence since joining underdog Venezia, which spends most of its games defending—but Musah has a stronger track record in a U.S. jersey, where Busio has appeared to struggle with the physicality of international play. He may be ready for it now. He may not. A game against your biggest rival would be a heck of a time to find out, but it’s easier to imagine putting Busio in there with McKennie’s all-action game to help cover for him.

For McKennie, a dominant performance in a statement win over his team’s biggest rival would give his journey this autumn a peak to match the swale of September. For his team, it might lead them to the top of the qualifying leaderboard.

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