It’s been quite a year for Mark McKenzie and it’s not finished quite yet.
The 21-year-old center back helped the Philadelphia Union finish with the stingiest defense in Major League Soccer and capture the Supporters’ Shield as the team with the best regular season record. He also earned MLS Best XI honors in only his third year in the league.
McKenzie, who once starred for the Delaware Rush in EDP Soccer, hopes to cap it off 2020 with his second appearance for the U.S. men’s national team in an international friendly against El Salvador in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on Wednesday, Dec. 9 (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNews, UniMas, TUDN).
“The season was really good for me, personally,” he said during a Friday video conference call with the media, adding that he “put together a good string of performances as the year went on, especially coming out of the bubble.”
He was referring to the MLS is Back Tournament in Orlando this past summer.
“Being on the international stage is a different beast, because the stakes and the margins are that much smaller,” McKenzie added. “You’re competing against the best of the best. So, any opportunity I get to compete [against] these international opponents is something that I look forward to and ultimately will dictate how far my game goes.”
There’s no doubt that McKenzie is going places. In fact, he might have played his final game for the Union because his superb performances have spurred interest in him in Europe. Rumors are that he will be transferred to a European club.
Whatever noise is emanating from across the Atlantic, the 6-foot, 185-lb. defender is concentrating on only one thing – excelling in camp.
“I can’t really focus on too much elsewhere. I can only control what I can control,” McKenzie said. “We’ll see in the coming weeks where everything lines up, but right now it's just about coming into camp and firing.”
Head coach Gregg Berhalter called 25 players into camp and 13 players have never played for the USA.
So, McKenzie, who has played once for the Red, White and Blue, is one of the “veterans,” which amused him. He made his international debut in the 1-0 win over Costa Rica on Feb. 1.
“Considering I'm only 21, to think, I’m more experienced, it’s funny to say,” he said. “You bring together this group of players coming up who are young and hungry and ready for an opportunity. ... I think that’s a really strong and lethal combination, and it’s only going to help us, especially young guys, going forward.”
McKenzie is battling for one of two starting center back berths. The depth chart includes John Brooks (Wolfsburg, Germany), Chris Richards (Bayern Munich, Germany), Matt Miazga (Anderlecht, Belgium), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls) and Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC), the 2020 MLS defender of the year. The latter two are in camp.
“We see how talented this pool of players is, how many guys we have competing in Champions League football,” McKenzie said. “This is a healthy competition between us all. We all recognize that. I wouldn’t see it in a negative light but only positive, because it just shows us how talented we are, and how deep we are at the position.”
Regardless where he plays, 2021 promises to be a busy year for McKenzie. He could compete for the national side and/or for the Under-23 team that will attempt to reach the Tokyo Olympics. The COVID-19 pandemic postponed qualifying earlier this year.
“The spotlight is placed on the Olympics, especially in the American eyes so as football [soccer] as we understand you don't get multiple shots at the Olympics like many other sports,” McKenzie said. “So, any opportunity you get to represent country on that stage, you got to grab with both hands.”
U.S. U-23 head coach Jason Kreis is one of the assistant coaches in camp, perhaps to get a head start on qualifying.
“It’s difficult telling when we're going be able to get back together with COVID and with everyone’s seasons being at different points,” McKenzie said. “We’re trying to get the group together for qualifiers to figure out what that timeline looks like. It’s definitely something that we have on the back of our minds. Whenever we do get the chance to get into qualifying and fight to earn a spot in the Olympics, everyone's going be ready and fully committed to it.”