The endurance that it took to get there

Mark McKenzie is one of the upcoming center-backs in the MLS. The 21-year Bronx native has shown his versatility as a defender on full display. Not only is he able to go up against forwards straight on and mark well on corners, but his passing ability can be in comparison to that of a center attacking midfielder. Of course, with the passing comes his vision of the field.

The Union met D.C. United at Subaru Park on August 29th, and McKenzie sat out. Before sitting out against United, McKenzie was the only Union defender on the field for every minute of the 2020 season. His endurance speaks for itself, and McKenzie is well aware that the feats he’s achieving now didn’t come easy. “It’s a testament to the hard work I put in. I’ve had some difficult times here. Since 2018, you know, whether it be finally getting in and picking up a knock and being on the outside looking in and having to work my way back into the lineup. Or, you know, catching injury spells, like last year at the beginning of the season, so definitely some frustrating times.”

College soccer vs. soccer academies

Players from the United States are making their strides in major European Leagues. Chelsea winger Christian Pulisic in the English Premier League and Borussia Dortmund midfielder Giovanni Reyna in the Bundesliga are prime examples. There’s no debate on whether American players have what it takes. Pulisic didn’t come up through the ranks of an academy, whereas Reyna did. Reyna was with the New York City FC’s academy from 2015-2019 before making a move to Dortmund. But, the question remains: are soccer academies better than college soccer in terms of preparation? College soccer has long been under scrutiny due to its lack of “compact scheduling.” The season’s length breaks down into a three- to four-month period. This reality results in less time for recovery and having to play more than one game per week.

To make matters more difficult, the players must prioritize their academies, making their time tough to manage. So, is college soccer worth it? There’s no one better to answer such a question than someone who’s gone through both experiences. McKenzie spent a single season at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Demon Deacons are one of the most successful Division I soccer programs. The program came together in 1980. Since 1988, Wake made 23 NCAA tournament appearances and were runners-up in 2016 and champions in 2007. After the 2017 season, McKenzie left Wake Forest for the Philadelphia Union academy.

McKenzie was with the academy and the Bethelem Steel between 2015-2016. In early 2018, the Union brought on McKenzie via a homegrown contract. When asked which route was the better option, McKenzie had great experiences from both settings. “Ultimately, the decision to go to Wake Forest for the semester, I think, slipped away, and I was away from family and loved ones in a new environment for me. I had to balance my academics as well as my athletics. I was the young guy in the group, trying to make my way into the team. Ultimately, I was frustrated not to play minutes, especially in the first, probably, three quarters of the season. It was definitely a difficult time being away from everyone and having to go through that period by myself and really dig deep and to know where I wanted to be, who I wanted to be.”

With the Union, McKenzie saw the team camaraderie. “At the Union’s academy, they kind of gave me what it would be like to be in a professional environment, to dedicate your life in essence to the game of football. You had to sacrifice a lot and whether it be listen, hangouts on the weekends with friends, or social gatherings with family and friends or birthdays, or graduate. There’s so many different scenarios, but again, you got to really be bought into the process.” And though times were difficult for McKenzie at Wake Forest, he was happy that he went through it and in hindsight, the experience prepared him for his career as a professional. “I think if I didn’t go to Wake, I may not have had that opportunity to really learn about who I am. And ultimately, I think that it mentally prepared myself for the next step.” 

Golden Generation for the U.S. men’s national team?

When Christian Pulisic made noise in Europe 2-3 years ago, he was the only American making headlines. Now, more U.S. internationals are starting to make a name for themselves. With that reality, the national team could be on the brink of a “golden generation.” McKenzie thinks the pool of talent is abundant. “I think we have a wealth of talent coming up in the ranks, whether it be guys like Gio Reyna, Ulysses Llanez, Timothy Weah. Then you know, you go to the guys who have been there and done it for a minute now in Tyler Adams, Christian Pulisic, and Weston McKinney.”

McKenzie also spoke on players who came up in from the U-20 teams. “You have guys like myself who came up in the U-20 team with Richard Ledezma, Brandon Servania, Chris Gloster, Chris Richards. And of course, Brenden Aaronson. I came up with him. There’s numerous more; I’m just naming off a few now.” And with the 2026 World Cup hosted by North America, with most games in the United States, hopes of a deep run in the month-long tournament are looming. 

Admiration for the greats of the past and now

Every young athlete has had a favorite athlete as a child. For me, that athlete was Allen Iverson. I grew up playing and watching basketball. At one point, I even asked my mom if I could get a diamond earring on my left ear, similar to the one Iverson wore before and after games. I loved his flair, his killer crossover, and his “play every game like it’s your last” mentality. And though I never made it to the NBA, I try to live by that mentality everyday. 

McKenzie admires Italian center-backs, specifically Fabio Cannavaro, Paolo Maldini, and Alessandro Nesta. These are the ones he regards to be the best. “There’s [Fabio] Cannavaro, lead Italy to a World Cup. You have [Paolo] Maldini, Alessandro Nesta up there as well. I definitely think some of the older generation, [Fabio] Cannavaro, Alessandro Nesta and [Paolo] Maldini are guys who I look at. Class on and off the field, class acts. True leaders who helped their country and club in more ways than one.” Of course, McKenzie is a fan of the game and watches the great center-backs of today. “In today’s game, you have guys like Sergio Ramos, Virgil van Dijk. And then coming up, guys like Joe Gomez. You have guys like [Dayot] Upamecano on Red Bull Leipzig and Kalidou Koulibaly as well.” 

Leaving behind a legacy for others to follow

Tim Howard made 399 league appearances between 2003-2016, split between Manchester United and Everton. To most, Howard is the best American goalkeeper of all-time and is well-known in the Premiership and the States. The legacy McKenzie wants to leave behind once he walks away from the game is of that stature. He doesn’t only want to be remembered by American fans but by fans in Europe. “To be a top defender, not only America remembers, but for European leagues remember and want to replicate in their academies.”

When it comes to his greatness as a player and what he hopes to achieve, he doesn’t want to emulate a specific player. He wants to be the best Mark. “Ultimately, I try not to find myself in that mindset. Ultimately,  I want to be the best me possible. I want to try to be the best Mark. I want to be the guy that guys look up to.”

Nonetheless there are players he admires in terms of style. “I’d probably say guys like Maldini and Cannavaro, Carles Puylol, are the three who I’d say that I look and try to emulate my game. You know, the composure, to put their bodies on the line, but also to play out and to start the attack for their teams.”

Mark McKenzie could become the next great American center-back and is well equipped to make it onto a major European team. But he knows he still has ways to go before that can happen. He knows what his state of mind needs to succeed at the highest levels in the beautiful game. “It’s a dog-eat-dog world in this industry. And again, only the strong survive.”