The U.S. Men’s National Team has been searching for a second centerback to partner John Brooks since Aaron Long suffered a ruptured Achilles in May and Gregg Berhalter may have found his ideal option in Mark McKenzie.
Making his first competitive start for the USMNT on Thursday night, McKenzie helped the Americans reach the Concacaf Nations League Final after a 1-0 semifinal victory over Honduras. The Genk defender came into the match on the heels of a 90-minute outing in Sunday’s 2-1 friendly loss to Switzerland, where he also partnered Brooks in the heart of the USMNT backline.
Not only did the former Philadelphia Union Homegrown player have his first taste of tournament action on Thursday, but he helped post a shutout and frustrate a Honduras attack for majority of the match.
“I thought Mark was strong and played a strong game,” Berhalter said post match in a conference call. “He dealt with a lot and he was able to win a lot of duels on his own. Overall, I think he had a good night.
“We advanced to a final so I think we happy about that,” Berhalter said. “This game is exactly what we needed when you think about the level of competitiveness and the game itself. Some of the guys have never seen that before so on the mental side it was good to keep grinding and wearing them down. For the guys to play how they did in altitude and in heat, they did a fantastic job.”
McKenzie was one of several American players to lift a trophy at club level this season, winning the Belgian Cup with Genk while also totaling 16 appearances for the eventual playoff winners. The 22-year-old defender experienced Europe for the first time as a player and since has remained on Berhalter’s radar ahead of the Concacaf Gold Cup and World Cup Qualifying.
Against Honduras, McKenzie did well to deal with the physicality of both Alberth Elis and Anthony Lozano, keeping them to the wide areas and not get into dangerous areas in front of Zack Steffen’s goal. McKenzie showed promising signs of what could come if he remains a starter for the USMNT.
For now McKenzie will wait and see if he is chosen for Sunday’s Nations League Final in Denver and try to be prepared for zero mistakes against Mexico or Costa Rica.
“I am really proud of Mark and happy that he kept his head focused on the game and grinded it out,” Steffen said post match. “This was really good experience for him tonight and I am happy with how he performed. He’s a young guy so he will need to experience moments like this and I think he did very well.”
“He is one of the guys who hadn’t been able to experience this type of atmosphere yet, but overall I think he did a great job in handling it and all of the emotions that come with Concacaf.”