Fans of the American men’s national team are starting to search for things to be optimistic about, as their pain from the World Cup qualifying failure recedes. A main cause for optimism is a born-and-raised-in-America teenager who moved to Germany rather than develop in the American youth system. He has broken through into the first team of a big-name Bundesliga side, and his name is Weston McKennie, not Christian Pulisic.
McKennie, who like Pulisic is 19 years old, plays for Schalke, which takes on Pulisic’s Borussia Dortmund side in Germany’s biggest local rivalry on Saturday. Plenty of American soccer watchers think McKennie, even more than Pulisic, has the potential to be the most important player for future American national teams.
A Texas native, McKennie played for FC Dallas’ youth teams. When it came time to sign a professional contract, he chose to dump Dallas and head for Germany, to develop at Schalke. The youngster had a history with the country, having lived in Germany for three years while his dad was stationed at the American military base in Kaiserslautern.
It also helped that American youth international Haji Wright, a friend of McKennie’s, was already in Schalke’s well-known youth academy, which developed some of Germany’s best players.
Since McKennie got to Germany, it’s taken him just a year to break through to Schalke’s first team. He made his first start for the club against Bayern Munich this September. Two months later, he got his first start for the United States’ senior national team, scoring the team’s only goal and being named man of the match in a 1-1 draw with Portugal. It’s a lightning-fast rise reminiscent of Pulisic, his teammate and friend with the American youth national teams.
Given McKennie’s youth, it’s a little hard to predict what his best position might be. He’s been playing in central midfield for both Schalke and the United States. Perhaps that will be his natural home for America, the heir to the box-to-box midfield position that has been occupied by Michael Bradley for the past three World Cup cycles. Other experts think he might settle in as a defensive midfielder. Regardless, he projects as a cornerstone of the American lineup for the next decade.
The Bundesliga, at the moment, is the United States’ most promising training ground. The team’s three building blocks for the 2022 World Cup and beyond, right now, appear to be Pulisic in attack, McKennie in midfield and John Brooks (VfL Wolfsburg) in defense. Striker Bobby Wood, only 25 years old, has just lost his starting job at Hamburg but has time to recover. Throw in 17-year-old striker Josh Sargent, who will join Werder Bremen in January, and America’s soccer future has a distinctly German vibe.
As American fans look for optimism, perhaps their best source can be the Bundesliga highlights. With any luck, this generation of American players should be regular German features for a few years to come.
• The North American Soccer League is still hoping to win a court ruling regarding its divisional status, but by the time it does, it might not have any teams left. San Francisco and Edmonton have folded. North Carolina has moved to the USL. The league has only seven teams, two of them expansion teams. At this point, it’s impossible not to wonder if we’ve seen the last of the NASL.
• It’s official: FC Kansas City, once one of the pillars of the National Women’s Soccer League, is no more. All of the club’s contracts and draft picks have been transferred to the new Salt Lake City women’s franchise. Minnesota businessman Elam Baer couldn’t figure out how to draw fans to FCKC games in his one season as a women’s soccer owner, but at least a new team has taken Kansas City’s place.
• The second legs of the MLS conference finals are Wednesday and Thursday, with all signs pointing to a rematch of last year’s MLS Cup Final. Seattle, last year’s winner, leads Houston 2-0 and gets to play the second match on home turf. Toronto, the league’s best team in history, is tied 0-0 with Columbus but plays the second leg at home and gets Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco back from suspension.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Bundesliga: Schalke at Borussia Dortmund, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, FS1. Lately the games between Dortmund and Bayern Munich have been more meaningful at the top of the league, but make no mistake — this local rivalry might be Germany’s most bitter. That Dortmund is floundering and Schalke is in second place makes it all the more meaningful.
Premier League: Chelsea at Liverpool, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. It looks like Manchester City might have the league title wrapped up by Christmas, but that leaves plenty of contenders chasing the consolation prize: a top-four spot and Champions League qualification. Three points separate Chelsea (in third) and Liverpool (fifth).
Ligue 1: Paris Saint-Germain at Monaco, 2 p.m. Sunday, beIN. There’s a lot going on here. It’s first vs. second, yes, but it’s also PSG against the team that stole its French crown last year. It’s the return of Kylian Mbappe to Monaco, which he spurned for an enormous payday at PSG. It might be the only chance for anyone to beat PSG this year, too.
Liga MX: Cruz Azul at America, 8 p.m. Sunday, Univision. This playoff quarterfinal is also a crosstown grudge match, with the teams going into the second leg tied 0-0 after a contentious first-leg matchup. America’s fans always think it should win the title, but for Cruz Azul, it’s been more than three years since it’s even made the playoffs.