The Union officially bid farewell to Mark McKenzie on Thursday, announcing his sale to Belgium’s KRC Genk. In doing so, they didn’t bid farewell just to a great player. They bid farewell also to a great person.
McKenzie rose to become one of the Union’s most prominent faces in 2020, and a leading antiracism campaigner in American soccer. As the spotlight on the subject grew, so did his voice, and the degree to which it was heard. By the end of the season, he was celebrated as much for that as for his tackles and passes that helped the Union win their first trophy.
It meant a lot to the 21-year-old who was born in the Bronx, N.Y., and raised in Bear, Del.
“In every step that I’ve taken, I’ve tried to make sure that I was a role model and a figure that the next generation could look up to and say, ‘Yeah, I can do that too,’ " McKenzie told The Inquirer in an interview this week.
“When I can look and see kids that look like me, and see them smile and see them with the enthusiasm of following the game of soccer, or [having] the best energy they can but enjoying and watching the games of the Union and saying, ‘Oh, No. 4 [McKenzie’s jersey number], I can relate to him,’ I think that for me is bigger than just playing the game in general,” McKenzie said. “I think the legacy and the imprint that I can leave on those coming after me is something that has pushed me to be the best I can be, not only on the pitch but off the pitch as well.”
Those are, again, not the words of a veteran like Brian Dawkins or Jimmy Rollins. They come from a 21-year-old.
“Mark is somebody who is very sophisticated in everything he is doing,” Union sporting director Ernst Tanner said. “I really appreciate what he is doing for the Black players in the league. The interviews he is doing are brilliant.”
Tanner believes that mentality translates to the field, too.
“If you look at how intelligently he is playing, how he improved with his left foot, building up our game as a right-footed player playing at the left centerback position, that had something to do with his ability as a human being,” Tanner said. “His ability to improve, to listen, to perform. But at the same time, he always has a strong opinion on things, and that’s what I really appreciate. You don’t find that very often with a player of his age.”
Now McKenzie can follow in the footsteps of a number of young Black American players who have moved to Europe in recent years, including some of his good friends. Chris Richards and Tyler Adams are in Germany. Weston McKennie is in Italy. Reggie Cannon is in Portugal, and Downingtown’s Zack Steffen is in England.
“That’s just one example of the impact that we’re trying to leave, one example of us being bigger than just the game,” McKenzie said. “When you’re surrounded by a group of guys coming from different backgrounds who are on a like-minded mission, that makes it even more powerful.”
There’s also a sell-on fee that will give the Union a piece of a future sale. The odds are good that if McKenzie keeps improving at Genk, he will move up to a bigger European team. And he is not shy about wanting that.
Like any young American player, McKenzie dreams of playing for giants like Bayern, Juventus and Manchester City. In fact, he wanted to leave the Union last summer, but Tanner didn’t want him to go and turned down an unnamed offer he thought wasn’t big enough.
“I refused, but then, that’s my job,” Tanner said. “I think we did everything well, because we won the [Supporters’ Shield] title. Mark was progressing more over the course of the season, and we certainly could get a lot more money. And maybe Mark has now a better club than he would have [gone to] in the summer.”
McKenzie has done his homework on Genk’s track record of developing some of world soccer’s brightest stars. He ran off names as if he was reading his fantasy team: Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, Atletico Madrid’s Yannick Carrasco, Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly, Liverpool’s Divock Origi, Bayer Leverkusen’s Leon Bailey.
“As much as I wanted to go to a top-tier league, I need more time,” McKenzie said. “I still have holes in my game that I need to fill and clean up before I can excel at the next level and play against the best of the best in Europe. Not saying I don’t have the ability to, but again being real with yourself and understanding that you need more time to nurture your game.”
McKenzie also said the coaching staff at Genk told him of their belief in his potential. Then the club put its money where its mouth is, paying the largest ever transfer fee for an American defender sold out of MLS.
The pathway is there for McKenzie to grow and thrive. He also hopes to be a role model for Genk’s youth players, like he was for prospects in the Union’s academy.
“You never know if there’s an 8-year-old Black kid [whose family] originates from a country in Africa, and he’s been playing in the Belgian ranks at Genk, and he may be able to connect with me on a deeper level,” he said. “For me to be able to inspire him and to push him, that’s something that I’m going to continue to do wherever I go.”