It kind of came out of nowhere. While rumors of Weston McKennie wanting to move on from Schalke in the Bundesliga were running pretty wild, the mentioned destinations were more mid-tier Premier League clubs. Southampton was the main one, which made all the sense in the world. Certainly McKennie would have seen how U.S. teammate Christian Pulisic took to life in England last season, and Schalke’s disastrous end to the season (they went winless in their last 15 matches) would have put their limitations in clear relief. McKennie was unquestionably their best player to end the season, but being the best player on a team that has visible stink-lines emanating from them for three months only has so much value. At 22, a move to a club like Southampton — where he would play for a team that is well-coached and have an attacking game — would have given McKennie a fine platform to improve and time to move to a bigger club before even hitting his prime.
And then, almost quick enough to be farcical, mentions of Juventus’ interest in the midfielder went from laughable fantasy to pictures of McKennie landing in Turin. He signed the deal almost immediately, a year loan with an option for the Italian giants to purchase him after the season at $18 million.
On the surface, it’s a borderline immense move for the U.S. program. Another young player raised in MLS moving not just to a Champions League club but the most famous in Italy. He’ll join Pulisic, Tyler Adams, and Gio Reyna in playing Champions League football next season and likely regularly beyond that (if he sticks). That’s two-thirds of the national team’s likely front six for the next five-to-ten years, hopefully. For any fan of the men’s national team, it’s hard to not at least smile a little at the thought.
But things are never that simple, especially for the USMNT. First off, McKennie is hardly going to walk straight onto the first team at Juve. He will be competing for spots with Rodrigo Betancur, Adrien Rabiot, Aaron Ramsey, new arrival Arthur from Barcelona, and possibly Sami Khedira if he stays at the club. Add to that Juve’s own kids from their own academy, and it’s a bit of a minefield. Throw in the adjustment to a new country, culture, club, language, and the rest and the size of the task becomes quite large.
Another question is just where Juve see McKennie fitting in. McKennie certainly covers a lot of ground during a match, it’s just kind of a question of what all that movement nets a team. He isn’t a good enough defender to be a holding midfielder, and he doesn’t score enough to be at the sharp end of a midfield either. He hardly creates anything for others, as his no assists this past season would attest. He does a little of everything without excelling at any of it, at least not yet. He’s kind of a Shakespearean midfielder, full of sound and fury yet signifying very little (he does better than nothing, we’ll give him that).
What might have U.S. fans dreaming is the pairing of McKennie with new Juventus manager Andrea Pirlo. The two could not possibly be more different as players. Whereas McKennie can be found just about anywhere at a given time, any heat map of any of Pirlo’s matches would simply look like a zit on the field. He barely moved, while spraying pinpoint passes to all parts. And that’s where McKennie’s game needs the most help, because his passing is probably the weakest part of his game. His 68 percent completion percentage in the 2018-2019 season is just above woeful, though that improved to a much more acceptable if not dynamite 80.3 percent this past season.
McKennie is not going to be Pirlo, nor would Juventus or the U.S. want him to be. Maximized, McKennie could be the ideal middle of a midfield-three, a box-to-box dervish that can support a defensive anchor and then run up the field and be the late-man in the box to aid the attacking focal point. The strongpoint of McKennie’s game is his energy and willingness to get forward and into space in the opposing box, even if he doesn’t finish that off nearly enough quite yet. Seeing as how the U.S. already has the perfect dovetail for such a thing in Adams, that’s the dream.
While it’s deep water in the Juventus midfield, it’s not so deep that an injury or two wouldn’t see McKennie become a regular. And Ramsey and Rabiot kind of specialize in having some part of their body crackle and/or pop with regularity. And that’s not to rule out McKennie just earning a role simply through his energy.
Still, McKennie might have just made the biggest move of any American player in history, considering the size of the club where he’s landed. Chelsea for Pulisic was the other contender, and he was much more expensive, but Chelsea are new money and merely a top four team in England at the moment. Juventus have been the standard in Italy for decades, and are coming off their ninth-straight league title. When’s the last time a Yank has moved to unquestionably the biggest club in one of Europe’s big five? It’s never happened for an outfield player, with only Tim Howard’s move to Manchester United years back (and how’d that go?), and Zack Steffen’s to Manchester City, where he’s yet to appear. Clint Dempsey made it to Tottenham. Michael Bradley to Roma, but both of those clubs are in the tier behind the true aristocracy.
Should McKennie at least prove a contributor, much like Pulisic at Chelsea, it only opens up more roads for American players to not just go to Europe, but play at major clubs there. Even if U.S. Soccer is run by a bunch of blindfolded and eternally confused lemurs, that can only be a good thing for the national team.