Weston McKennie is an unassuming sort. A military brat who lived a peripatetic childhood that led through Germany, where he first started playing soccer before returning as an 18-year-old to sign with Bundesliga juggernaut Schalke 04, rather than remain with FC Dallas of Major League Soccer, which had developed him. Certainly, he dabbles in soccer’s spoils — the expensive car, the designer shoes — but he fits more neatly into the mold of fellow national team star and close friend Christian Pulisic, for whom fame and attention are unpleasant byproducts of success.
Now, like Pulisic, he has parlayed that teenaged move to a German club known for developing talent into a major transfer to a European superclub. Whereas Pulisic picked Schalke’s archrivals Borussia Dortmund and then Premier League power Chelsea, McKennie has left Germany for nine-time reigning Italian champions Juventus, where he will be a teammate of the second-greatest player of all time, Cristiano Ronaldo.
And like Pulisic, McKennie is breaking boundaries.
McKennie wore a white dress shirt with a visible white undershirt to his weekend presentation, although he eventually ditched the undershirt. It felt fitting for a player who, a day after his 22nd birthday, is so multifunctional in central midfield that nobody is entirely confident in what his best role is. Like a white shirt, he goes with anything.
He said a few sensible and unchallenging things to the club’s TV channel about “idolizing” his new teammates and all of it being “a dream come true.”
Like the two other clubs he played for (and Wikipedia) Juventus identified McKennie’s place of birth as Little Elm, Texas, in its news release, when he was, in fact, born at Fort Lewis in Washington state when his father was stationed there. He evidently isn’t the kind of guy to correct such basic biographical details as the place he came from, perhaps because he didn’t really come from any one place.
But now he is going to Turin. Juventus will pay Schalke $5.3 million to loan McKennie through the 2020-21 season, whereupon it can buy him outright for $22 million with another $8.3 million in potential add-on bonuses. Per Italian soccer journalist Fabrizio Romano, the permanent purchase becomes obligatory if McKennie appears in 60 percent of Juve’s matches. If he should become a regular, in other words.
McKennie’s transfer fee doesn’t catch the eye the way Pulisic’s $77 million move to the Blues did last year, shattering the record transfer fee paid for an American. While a move that could add up to $35 million would be almost double that of the second-most expensive American transfer — John Brooks from Hertha Berlin to Wolfsburg for $19 million in 2017 — it isn’t necessarily the fee itself that feels so significant. It’s the destination.
Few Americans have played for the true aristocratic clubs of European soccer — not even Pulisic, now active for one of the game’s nouveaux riches, rather than the old money. Tim Howard spent three seasons with Manchester United but only played regularly for one. Landon Donovan had an unhappy loan stint with Bayern Munich. And a few Americans have come through the youth academies at world-famous clubs like United or Barcelona, where Konrad de la Fuente threatens to get a look in the first team.
Others have played for major clubs in Italy, although Serie A, as a league, has been more resistant to Americans than other European legacy circuits. Michael Bradley had a stint with AS Roma but saw his playing time diminish in his second season. Oguchi Onyewu was on the books at AC Milan for a season and a half but made only one appearance. But none as big as Juventus.
If McKennie breaks through in a team undergoing a rapid rejuvenation under first-time manager Andrea Pirlo and builds it into a longer career there, he will achieve something no other American has yet done: become a regular for one of Europe’s top clubs. With Miralem Pjanic off to Barca in a swap for Arthur and Blaise Matuidi released in order to sign with Inter Miami, a handful of competitors remain for the central midfield jobs at Juventus.
But owing to McKennie’s ability to play several different ways — he’s probably best suited to a box-to-box role that enables his prodigious ball-recoveries and ability to get forward — there might be opportunity in several jobs in whatever Pirlo’s system turns out to be.
And if McKennie does get himself on the field with some frequency, he will slot into a line of succession in Juve’s central midfield that traces directly from Pjanic through Arturo Vidal, Paul Pogba and Pirlo himself, to Edgar Davids, Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps, Michael Laudrup and Michel Platini. There are few clubs that have seen so many generational players star in the same position as central midfielders at Juventus. It is a hallowed position at a globally renowned club.
To follow in that kind of tradition would be another first for an American. Pulisic has done fabulously well in his first season at Chelsea, but forwards come and go quickly in West London. National teammate Tyler Adams scored the goal that put RB Leipzig into the semifinal of the Champions League this season, but he did so as a substitute.
Neither accomplishment should be diminished. But at present, the battering ram breaking through boundaries on behalf of the other young Americans quickly cementing their names in Europe is Weston McKennie. Modest McKennie, born not in Little Elm, Texas.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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