Let’s start here: Weston McKennie has reached “billboard” status in his young footballing career.
Whatever you have to say about the commercial aspect of our sports world or the rocket trajectory of so many American players in the game, there’s something about getting your face on a billboard that helps stratify young stars, whether they spent their careers coming up through the academy of a hallowed European institution or if, like McKennie, you’ve moved from FC Dallas academy to Schalke and the United States men’s national team and now Juventus.
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And so it is that it seems remarkable that McKennie’s face is on billboards as part of his connection with Six Star Sports Nutrition, a company he simply liked because their supplements helped him perform at his best.
So, yeah, regardless of on- or off-field drama — and we’ll get to that — the star of Weston McKennie continues to burn brighter and that’s where we begin our conversation with the 23-year-old midfielder.
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ProSoccerTalk: Honestly, Weston, the last time we spoke 1-on-1 and outside of a USMNT Zoom session you were a teenager at Schalke. Every player imagines his journey to stardom, but your rise is still pretty surreal even for a person with high expectations. What do you think about when you consider where this journey started and where it sits now, where you’re a big part of one of the biggest clubs on earth and have your face on billboards?
Weston McKennie: “It’s definitely something where if you would’ve put it in front of me and said this is where you’re going to be at. When I’m 15, 16 years old, I probably wouldn’t have believed that. When I first when the jump to Europe and went to Schalke and finally made the first team, I finally realized I could make it big one day. I can get to a top club. In my eyes at that time, Schalke was a top club for me coming from America. I have goals and each time I accomplish one, I set another one. I made it at Schalke and I wanted to grow and develop as quickly as possible and see where it would go from there. It was a matter of self-belief and staying healthy.”
ProSoccerTalk: Speaking of self-belief, there’s an expectation of fire from you on the pitch, but whether it’s being a part of the fabric of Juventus or the leadership of the USMNT, there also needs to be humility. The word “swagger” is often used when it comes to you. How do you balance the swagger that comes with needing to best you can be and knowing your personality is required in that, versus knowing the history of Juventus, Schalke, and the national team, and balancing that?”
Weston McKennie: “To be completely honest, I struggled a bit with balancing that when I first came to Juventus, not in humility part but just that in Italian football has a different culture than
I’m used to and Juventus is a different stature than any club I’ve played for. Here, it’s you’re expected to win and if you’re not winning games and still joking around and having a good time, it’s looked down upon and you can say that’s a good thing or bad thing but for me it’s crap because I’m a person who if we lose a game I’m mad but I can’t dwell in the past too long. Let it hurt for the rest of the night, maybe a little bit of the morning, but after that life and football goes on and you have to focus on the next game.
“When I first came here, I was a little bit looked at like, “Ehhh, what are you doing kid? You’re out here trying to laugh and joke and play music loud and we just lost yesterday?” But I’ve learned to pick and choose the right moments when I can let my full personality out, and when I can tone it down a bit but still be myself at the same time.”
ProSoccerTalk: When you first signed at Juve, I remember the social media of yours going from the blue of Schalke to the black-and-white of Juventus and the unveiling, training competitions with Cristiano Ronaldo, Chiellini, Bonucci, monsters of the game. These are legends and at that point you’re attempting to become a mainstay. Even the executives and directors are some of the biggest names in world football. Honestly, it feels like it would almost be necessary or even a coping mechanism not to be yourself. A big name coach leaves, replaced by another giant of the game. Do you feel like you’ve found your even-keel level, the comfort inside of the chaos? When you’re on a team, you’re on a team. But now you’re woven into the fabric.
Weston McKennie: “It’s definitely crazy. If you would’ve told me five, six years ago I’d be playing with the guys I play as on FIFA, I wouldn’t never said, ‘Yeah.’ If you would’ve told me I’d play with Cristiano, Dybala, Szczesny, Chiellini, Bonucci, I would never say, ‘Yeah, of course.’ But now that I look at it — I understand why at home people ask me what it’s like in the locker room, what is Dybala like? I’d probably be the same if I wasn’t here, but these are my guys, this is my team. If I need them I just walk down the hall and knock on their door.
“When you come to teams like this, you don’t have time to stay in that awe moment, to stay in that fan movement because that’s your level now. That’s what you’re trying to be. You’re gonna make it or your not. You can be a fan boy but it can be gone just like that if you don’t perform and show them why the next person who comes in shouldn’t be a fan boy of you.”
ProSoccerTalk: When it comes to the elephant in the room, I’m not naive enough to think I’m the guy to unlock the vault on what happened leading up to Gregg Berhalter sending you home from the World Cup qualifiers. But we know life’s an education, so what’s stuck with you most in the ensuing months?
Weston McKennie: “Honestly, I won’t go into detail on how I saw it, but for me it was a big, big mental test and a big, big challenge to overcome because you make a mistake, and you’re automatically looked at as someone who is letting the team down or someone that is selfish. People forget sometimes that we’re human, y’know? We’re not robots and allowed to make mistakes as well. Everyone has a severity or terrible timing in their mistakes, but everyone makes them.
“For me it was just about getting back here and trying to find my form and confidence. There are a lot of people who can be affected by social media. I try not to look into that too much but it was hard to avoid and the things that were said to me were really hard to take. The things that were said to me. I was racially abused for it. I was called many names, said I was selfish and acting like a kid. I’ve worked my whole life to get where I am, but not every moment is going to be at a high point. Some people are going to be at a low point and that’s when the real fans and support group starts to show. At that moment, I felt like I really found out what people are about and what they are looking for, whether you succeed or not. That’s what I learned so I’m trying to put in the work, keep my head down, and prove them wrong on the field.”
ProSoccerTalk: That’s wise. I wanted to ask you something lighter after that heaviness, and I love hearing Clint Dempsey talk about you so positively. To me, he’s it — the best in the program history, more than Donovan, Reyna — the gold standard, and when we talk about you, Christian, and Gio having the chance to be the best. When you think of the national team hopefully restoring that USMNT’s reputation, and making guys like Dempsey proud, what does that mean to you?
Weston McKennie: “It means a lot. I looked up to a lot of those players as well and Clint Dempsey was one of them. He’s a guy, like you said about me, the way I carry myself with the national team. I kinda have my own swagger. I have my own little vibe going on, but I still fight and I leave everything on the field. Clint Dempsey was one of those guys who did the same thing but he also has this country charisma, like, “Woah,” an aspect that’s not different.”
ProSoccerTalk: That’s not unlike you!
Weston McKennie: “Yeah. And to go into the national team and have an impact and hopefully be a part of a generation that makes people fall in love with the game in the U.S. and gains respect in the countries around the world and hopefully one day be hanging side-by-side on a wall with the Hall of Fame or something would be amazing and mean a lot to me.”
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Weston McKennie opens up on growing up with USMNT, Juve, becoming a star originally appeared on NBCSports.com