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Union’s Mark McKenzie hopes to build on big rookie season, USMNT under-20s success

The 19-year-old was a finalist for MLS Rookie of the Year and U.S. Soccer Young Male Athlete of the Year. He knows there's work to do to make his second season even better.

Union defender Mark McKenzie was a finalist for Major League Soccer's Rookie of the Year award and U.S. Soccer's Young Male Athlete of the Year award.
Union defender Mark McKenzie was a finalist for Major League Soccer's Rookie of the Year award and U.S. Soccer's Young Male Athlete of the Year award.Read moreElizabeth Robertson / Staff Photographer

It’s been a month and a half since the Union’s season ended, but it likely doesn’t feel that way for Mark McKenzie.

The 19-year-old Bronx native went almost directly from the Union’s playoff exit on Halloween in New York to the United States under-20 men’s national team’s Concacaf World Cup qualifying tournament in Florida. He was back on the field on Nov. 3 for the first of five appearances in the tournament, which ran until Nov. 21. He played every minute of those games and wore the captain’s armband three times.

Only after the title game win over rival Mexico did McKenzie’s first year as a professional soccer player finally come to a close. He fully earned a few weeks to take it easy before the 2019 preseason begins next month.

McKenzie also fully earned two plaudits that came his way. He was a finalist for MLS' Rookie of the Year award, for playing 23 games in all competitions for the Union and going 90 minutes in all but one of them. (And he would have played more if not for a knee injury that sidelined him in August.)

He then was named a finalist for U.S. Soccer’s Young Male Athlete of the Year, thanks to his strong performances with the under-20 team. They didn’t just win the tournament, they did so by a combined 46-2 margin over seven games, with five shutouts. McKenzie even got to score three goals, and assisted on another.

Now comes the hard part: making sure the second year is as good as the first. As fellow Union defenders Keegan Rosenberry and Jack Elliott can attest to, that is easier said than done.

The stakes are raised further by the tactical changes sporting director Ernst Tanner is installing this winter, and by the potential for McKenzie to play for the U.S. at the under-20 World Cup next May and June.

McKenzie is ready for the challenge.

“I’m not a fortune-teller or anything like that, so I’m not really sure what is going to happen. All that I can really do is control what I do and give the best that I can give to the team in any way possible, to help the team succeed,” he said in a recent roundtable interview with local reporters. “There’s a whole bunch of rumors on what’s going to happen, but nobody’s going to really know until we get to playing on the field during preseason. I’m looking forward to getting back. Right now I’m just recovering and prepping my body and my mind for next season.”

He has taken the last week or two to spend time with family and friends, watch some tape of his games so far, and do some training. Now it’s just about time to get back to work.

“Whatever changes are made, whatever formation changes are made, I’ll be ready to fight for my spot and put my head down and do what got me here in the first place,” he said in a recent roundtable interview with a few local reporters. “And I’ll let the rest handle itself."