At times this year, it has seemed like everything that could go wrong for Mark McKenzie has gone wrong.
After playing in 23 games for the Union last year, McKenzie suffered a battery of health problems this year: an ankle injury in the preseason, a concussion in March and appendicitis last month. He is finally fit again now, and just in time for the biggest stage of his soccer career.
McKenzie was named Friday to the U.S. men’s national team roster for the under-20 World Cup, which runs from May 23-June 15 in Poland. The centerback was a cocaptain of the squad in last autumn’s qualifying tournament, and has been a key player in U.S. coach Tab Ramos’ game plan throughout the two years since the last World Cup.
“I feel good. I’ve been working with the trainers here to try and get back out there on the field as fully and as fast as possible,” McKenzie said. “Where I’m at now, I’m ahead of the game, and I have full confidence in myself that I’ll be OK.”
It has not been easy, though, from the mental side of things as much as the physical side.
"The initial shock of having to go through an appendectomy was like, ‘Oh my gosh, why now?’ " he said. “To now be over that hump — of course, there were some tough days, but it’s about remaining confident in my abilities and not getting too down on myself, not throwing myself a pity party because that would completely throw myself out of whack.”
On top of the injuries, McKenzie had to put up with being in the middle of a tug-of-war between the Union and the U.S. Soccer Federation. FIFA doesn’t require clubs to release players for the under-20 World Cup the way it does for the senior tournament, and Union sporting director Ernst Tanner said in January that the Union might not let him go.
Then, when McKenzie didn’t play for the Union through March, U.S. coach Tab Ramos asserted that he might not pick McKenzie for the tournament if he never got on the field.
In reality, McKenzie was probably always going to make the team. He loves playing for his country, and the Union gain from his doing so because it increases his potential transfer value. Cooler heads finally prevailed last month.
“Mark’s a young pro that has a pretty level head on his shoulders,” Union manager Jim Curtin said. “It’s overwhelming, the amount of things and adversity he’s had. He’s handled it well.”
Tanner similarly saluted McKenzie as being “a really positive example for attitude.”
Now McKenzie, a Bronx native who grew up in Bear, Del., gets what could be a star turn on the world stage. He also gets to follow in the footsteps of Auston Trusty and former teammate Derrick Jones, who played for the U.S. in the Under-20 World Cup two years ago. As the Union’s academy continues to develop quality players — such as forward Jack de Vries, who’s currently with the U.S. under-17 team — McKenzie becomes the new example.
“It just shows the young guys that it’s achievable,” McKenzie said. “We were once in their shoes, and we were fighting for a spot on the under-14, under-16 [teams], and just kind of taking it every step of the way and not getting ahead of yourself, because the game throws a lot of ups and downs at you.
“It’s definitely showing these younger guys that it’s about remaining consistent with your mindset, with your play on the field, with what you do off the field, because you never know when your name is going to be called.”
There are also examples in the Union’s ranks of what American players can achieve worldwide. Alejandro Bedoya has played for four European clubs and earned 66 national team caps, including at the 2014 World Cup. Fafa Picault has played in Italy, Germany and the Czech Republic. During McKenzie’s last year in the academy, he learned from World Cup veterans Maurice Edu and Oguchi Onyewu.
They have all understood the importance of continuing the lineage.