When Mark McKenzie joined the Delaware Rush as a 12-year-old, coach Justin Romano realized the talented defender wasn't long for his team. It was because the Bear, Delaware native was head and shoulders above his teammates and most of the other players in the EDP. "I think we knew from the outset he wouldn't be at our team for very long, especially when we saw him for a couple of weeks," Romano said. "We knew he would be fantastic."
His performances with the Delaware Rush were so good he was invited to join the Philadelphia Union Academy not long after, before attending Wake Forest on an athletic scholarship. Soon after his freshman year, he was offered a homegrown deal with the Union this past January.
"It's cool to see where he's come from and now what he's up to," Romano said. McKenzie, now 19, was playing two years up in the Delaware Olympic Development Program when he joined the Rush in 2011. "He was always a great kid. That was always No. 1 to me," Romano said. "There was a lot of things he had done. He's got a great family. He was always that kind of vibrant kid, a good leader, a super good soccer player."
"He's just a better kid than he's a player. You can't say that about a lot of the kids." Romano explains.
During his two years with the team, McKenzie left the coaching staff in awe, with both his physical play and mentality. Asked what stood out about McKenzie, Romano replied, "pretty much everything." "It was like having a video game player on the team," he said. "He made the game look so easy. He was important to the team. He made the game look like it wasn't fun for him, despite the fact he had a lot of fun. He at times just looked like he really didn't belong there. He obviously made my job a lot simpler, too. He was so good."
McKenzie's physical tools were well beyond his age, which included his speed and size. It was like having a 16-year-old (playing against U12) on the field, Romano said. "Physically he just dwarfed other players," he said. "That was his No. 1 thing. When other players or teammates or coaches would look at him, the first thing was wow, 'Are you sure he should play soccer because he could play football or basketball?' He could jump. He's a prototypical American athlete in that, if he didn't play soccer, he could've played other sports in college His maturity, his ability to lead players and the team was something that I haven't seen since because he was new to the club."
Before McKenzie became a leader for the Rush, he started off as a bit of an outsider when he joined the team. "A lot of the players had been playing on the team since they were 7-, 8-years-old," said Romano, currently the director of the Rush Boys and Girls Under-11 and U-12 programs. "Then he comes in at 12 and they immediately looked at him to lead. He took the reins, too."
In fact, Romano continues to use McKenzie as a benchmark club players considering a future in high-level soccer. "I get asked all the time, 'Hey, should he go to a different team? How good is my son?' " he said. "I always compare them to Mark because when he left for the Union Academy team, he was so good. It was an absolute no brainer of 'Yeah, please go. You've kind of outgrown the team here.' Not that other players were comparable, but he was just so much better. Every game he played he was generally the best player on the whole field. It was rare when a player was better than him."
Romano, due to McKenzie’s dominance on the youth soccer level, decided to deploy the powerhouse player in a variety of positions. "We figured forward would be fun for him, scoring goals,” he said. “We didn't think he'd play there for the rest of his career. Him playing there probably would be fun." The Coaching staff struggle to find a position that McKenzie couldn’t play. One game, against a difficult Penn Fusion side, McKenzie played an attacking role before moving to a more defensive position late in the match to help secure the win."He played everywhere," Romano said.
After excelling at the Union Academy, the club felt McKenzie was ready to jump into the deep end of the pool with the big boys and signed him as a homegrown player. McKenzie “can track anything down, can jump planes out of the sky,” Union sporting director Earnie Stewart says about the club’s latest signing on www.Delawareonline.
After McKenzie signed with the Union, Stewart said, “Mark is a promising center back who made an impact for Wake Forest last year, a very good team at the collegiate level. It’s special any time you sign a homegrown, and Mark is no exception. In this case, he made a difficult decision to leave school to sign with us, and we don’t take that lightly. We look forward to helping him with his development as he takes the next step with the Union.”
McKenzie's challenge is getting some playing time. He hasn't played a minute yet for the Union this Major League Soccer season. However, in late March he was with the U.S. Under-20 national team for friendlies in France and Spain. When he returns, McKenzie will have his work cut out for himself with the Union. "Center back is tougher obviously to break into,” Romano said. “Those are positions that we really don't sub much. It's not like he's getting five to 10 minutes every game to get his feet wet. "He knows the work he's going to put in the next couple years. He's in for it. I'm hoping to see him play. That will be pretty cool, but it's going to be harder than a lot people think."
Romano, who admits he is biased, is in McKenzie’s corner. "I think he'll be a great pro for a long time," he said. "I think a lot of people forget he has just turned 19-years-old so he's still really young compared to a lot of the pros. He's playing against 28-year-old grown men. I think he's not really finished growing yet." In fact, Mark McKenzie is just beginning. Despite his dominance at the youth level, there’s no sign of complacency from the Union’s latest signing. McKenzie knows he’s in deeper waters now, and breaking into a starting lineup that doesn’t rotate often is an uphill battle.
Speaking after his first league match for the Union earlier this month, McKenzie reflected fondly upon his youth soccer journey that led him to his MLS debut “it's like the old days but at a much higher level," McKenzie said. "It's not a joke, this is our job and everything has to be taken seriously. But it is nice being back out there…
Delaware Online, 2018 - https://www.delawareonline.com/story/sports/2018/01/19/delawares-mark-mckenzie-signs-major-league-soccers-philadelphia-union/1048871001/
Philadelphia Union, 2018 - https://www.philadelphiaunion.com/post/2018/04/16/homegrown-product-mark-mckenzie-makes-mls-debut
Photo credit: https://www.philadelphiaunion.com/club/pressbox/headshots
Photos courtesy of US Soccer Federation and Philadelphia Union Soccer Club