Mark McKenzie is one MLS player who reached several highs in 2020 and will now look to close the year on another, this coming with the U.S. Men’s National Team.
McKenzie is coming off another strong campaign with the Philadelphia Union in MLS, finishing as a finalist for the league’s Defender of the Year award and lifting his first trophy with the club. With European-based players not being used for Wednesday’s friendly vs. El Salvador, McKenzie will look to boost his stock ahead of a busy 2021 year.
“The focus immediately turned to coming out here and coming to camp,” McKenzie, who suffered a first round playoff elimination with Philadelphia, said in a conference call Friday. “We have an important game coming up against El Salvador to end the year, so I really just turned my focus to preparing for this camp, getting in fit, making sure I’m healthy, passing all my COVID tests and ultimately getting out here with the group and putting my game in with the principles that Gregg (Berhalter) wants to get across. From there, I can’t focus on too much else. I can only control what I can control.”
The New York native is joined by several MLS center backs for this camp including “Defender of the Year” winner Walker Zimmerman, New York Red Bulls veteran Aaron Long, and Chicago Fire rookie Mauricio Pineda. Should McKenzie play on Wednesday in Fort Lauderdale, it will be his second senior cap for the USMNT this year, after debuting in a 1-0 February win over Costa Rica.
After totaling 28 appearances for the Union over his first two MLS seasons, the 21-year-old reached a new career-high in 2020 with 23 combined outings for Jim Curtin’s side. McKenzie’s ability to continue developing and impressing at a high level in a hectic season rewarded him with a spot in this month’s camp and another opportunity to show Gregg Berhalter and his staff what he can bring going forward.
“To think I’m more experienced is funny to say,” McKenzie said regarding comparisons to the other center backs in camp. “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 will see his club and international teammate Brenden Aaronson depart the Union this January for a move to Austrian club Red Bull Salzburg, but might not be far behind. Scottish Premiership side Celtic has been linked with McKenzie’s services for most of this year and have done anything but grow due to his top performances for the Supporters’ Shield winning Union.
McKenzie is also an option for the U.S. Under-23 Men’s National Team, who was scheduled to take part in Olympic Qualifying this year before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a postponement to 2021. Now the Union defender will have a new chance to possibly make Jason Kreis’ roster and help the Americans clinch a berth to Tokyo for its first Olympic trip since 2008.
“It’s something that’s on everyone’s mind,” McKenzie said. “The spotlight is on the Olympics, especially the American eyes. As footballers, we understand you don’t get multiple shots at the Olympics like many other sports, so any opportunity you get to represent your country on that stage, you’ve got to grab with both hands.”
“I think we’re all looking forward to it, and whenever we do get a chance to get into qualifiers and earn our chances to get to the Olympics, I think everyone’s going to be ready to go and fully committed.”